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North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue’s task force has come up with an amount to pay the victims of the state’s eugenics program. While the legislature formally apologized in 2002, there has lingered the question of whether and how much to pay survivors. Governor Perdue campaigned on the issue and launched a task force, which on January 10th formally recommended that the government pay $50,000 in restitution to each person involuntarily sterilized under the state’s eugenics board.
Far from being relegated to the horrors of the Holocaust, the eugenics movement in the United States was alive and well both before and after World War II. In total, over 60,000 people in almost three dozen states were forcibly sterilized by means of vasectomies or tubal ligation for being supposedly mentally deficient, habitual criminals, or otherwise a burden on society. Officials mistakenly believed that these characteristics were genetic traits that could be passed on from generation to generation, a process which the state could interrupt by eliminating these people’s ability to bear children, thereby purifying the population’s gene pool and easing the state’s financial obligations. Typically, however, rather than having heritable diseases, the subjects were simply in unfortunate socioeconomic conditions, as the state targeted minorities, the poor, the uneducated, and those deemed disruptive in some way. North Carolina itself waged one of the longest and most aggressive campaigns, sterilizing over 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974, in part through the efforts of social workers who could condition the receipt of welfare benefits on the recipient’s sterilization, threatening revocation if family members did not comply. With the procedure often done while individuals were still minors, many did not understand they had been sterilized until later in life when they tried to start having children. The state task force estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 victims are still alive, yet it is unclear whether restitution payments would also be made to the families or estates of those already deceased. So far the state has only verified 72 victims, matching their medical records with those in the eugenics board’s files.*
One might ask how the states were constitutionally able to force their citizens to undergo irreversible medical procedures. Sadly, the Supreme Court approved this practice early on in Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), which has never been overruled, in which the Court found that compulsory sterilization violated neither due process nor equal protection guarantees. Justice Holmes stated, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Id. at 207. Based on this logic (rather than valid science), state after state took up the cause of supposedly bettering their societies through eugenics.
Now, if approved by the legislature, North Carolina could be the first state to compensate victims of state-mandated sterilization. In a time of tight budgets and increasing deficits, getting legislatures’ approval of payments may be difficult. The recommendation of $50,000 per victim, however, seems to be a compromise of sorts, between the $20,000 some proposed and the $1 million demanded by several of the victims. As stated by Charmaine Fuller, executive director of the NC Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, “It’s not about quantifying the unborn child, it’s about the choices that were taken away.”
*If you or someone you know may have been sterilized in this program, please visit the NC Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation website for more information on getting verified.
– Kendall Short
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