NC Panel Recommends Reparations for Victims of Forcible Sterilization

A North Carolina panel has recommended that reparations be paid out to some 7,600 people who were victims of forced sterilizations:

A state House panel recommended the state give $20,000 to victims of the eugenics program, which sterilized about 7,600 people between 1929 and 1975 who were considered to be mentally handicapped or genetically inferior. Though North Carolina and several other states have apologized for such programs, none have offered reparations.

“Yes, it is ugly. It’s not something that we’re proud of,” said state Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, who has been working on the issue for several years. “But I’m glad that North Carolina has done more than any other state to step forward and not run away from it.”

Lawmakers in the full General Assembly will have to approve the idea. They convene next month.

Illinois was the first state to offer a eugenics program in 1907 as social reformers advocated for a way to cleanse society of the mentally handicapped and mentally ill. Many states curtailed their sterilizations after World War II, recognizing it was similar to the actions taken by Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.

North Carolina, however, moved ahead aggressively after the war, conducting about 80 percent of procedures after 1945 and growing the program to be the third largest in the nation, behind only California and Virginia.

Most of those sterilized in the 1960s were poor black women.

There are strong intersections here between sexism, racism, classism and ableism.  Though people of all genders were forcibly sterilized, women were generally seen as the ones responsible for fertility; those with mental disabilities were seen as unfit to reproduce; and those who were of color (especially but certainly not entirely black) and/or poor were more likely to be seen as having a mental disability, even if they didn’t, and unfit to parent for a variety of reasons.

The history of forced sterilizations is one that’s highly important to modern understandings of systematic, violent discrimination, reproductive justice, and how social movements, certainly feminism, have often failed to help those burdened under the weight of more than one type of oppression.  In fact, though much less common, forcible sterilizations and attempts at forcible or coerced sterilizations continue in America today.

For a much more comprehensive introduction on all of this, I can’t more highly recommend both Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty.

As is always the case with reparations, they don’t actually right a wrong.  With something so serious and irreversible, the wrong cannot in fact possibly be righted.  They do, however, act as an acknowledgment of the suffering that was inflicted, and the fact that it had very tangible results.  If the state approves the idea of reparations, as I certainly hope they will, $20,000 for each survivor will not heal the wounds that NC created, but they will act as an important symbol of how people, all people, should and should  not be treated.  And no one should have their reproductive rights and their bodies violated.  Ever.

h/t CripChick

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12 comments for “NC Panel Recommends Reparations for Victims of Forcible Sterilization

  1. Kristin
    December 22, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Oh, wow… I got goosebumps when I read this. I grew up in North Carolina during the latter Jesse Helms years, and while you’re right that this can’t undo anything, it’s certainly an important step–and one that I never thought would happen during my life time. Of course, I’m 28 years old, and I never thought I’d live to see the state go Blue in a Presidential race either. That something like reparations is out on the table at all suggests a substantial political shift… And while it can’t change the past and I’m not sure how to quantify anything like forced sterilization (While $20,000 does not seem like enough, I’m not sure that any sum could really… well, be enough to “compensate” for that kind of violation.)…. Well, in any case, it’s good news.

    Tomorrow, I’m heading down there for the holidays, and I look forward to hearing what people are saying about its chances. It’s hard to follow NC politics from so far away, but yeah… I hope it passes too. (That NC is also suffering the fall-out from the financial crisis makes me a little pessimistic, but yeah, I hope it passes.)

    Also, just a note: A vast number of North Carolinians who were forcibly sterilized were women who had psychological and/or cognitive disabilities (I’m not sure what “mental disabilities” means.). Throughout the South, both women of color and women with disabilities were major targets of this practice. A number of false diagnoses were issued in order to justify sterilizations based on non-racialized justifications. While some of the women were, in fact, disabled, many were diagnosed as such in order for doctors to maintain job security.

    Most of these eugenics programs, based on what I know, made sterilization legal for women with certain disabilities. It was not (especially in its later incarnations) legal based on race, so there were a number of illegal sterilizations (in NC, against both Black and Cherokee women specifically) that were performed in the course of some other medical treatment. When the eugenics program was codified in law, disability was often proffered as the justification when the real aim was to sterilize the Black and Cherokee populations.

    The fantastic Ladelle McWhorter is coming out with a book on this topic in early 2009 called Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy (not just about NC, but about the larger US history). I heard her give a talk about it over the summer, and it sounds like it’s going to be fantastic.

  2. Kristin
    December 22, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    Also, it is kind of cool–and unexpected–to see my hometown TV station linked on feministe.

  3. December 22, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    This is very important, symbolically. I don’t think this possibility is a figment of another era. I am in medical school. In a journal club meeting, a student said that he thought poor women should be “sterilized for their own good”. I have also heard other future doctors say that people should be given IQ tests before they are allowed to have children.

  4. Bitter Scribe
    December 23, 2008 at 12:57 am

    Illinois was the first state to offer a eugenics program in 1907 as social reformers advocated for a way to cleanse society of the mentally handicapped and mentally ill.

    Yay! Another milestone for my state!

    Not only are we tops in high-level corruption, we also took the lead in atrocities perpetrated on poor black women. Who’da thunk it?

  5. December 23, 2008 at 2:15 am

    Yay for Illinois. Oy! I’d heard this but had forgotten. Thanks for the reminder. And while I’m sure poor black women were affected by this, it was primarily targeted at poor Irish, Italian, and Eastern European women who were mostly immigrants. Poor and undesirable were the binding characteristics, didn’t matter your skin color, as much as it did your income level.

  6. jonk
    December 23, 2008 at 9:25 am

    The history of forced sterilizations eugenics is one that’s highly important to modern understandings of mass schooling

  7. Kristin
    December 23, 2008 at 10:42 am

    MomTFH: Yeah, this is a huge trend all over the sciences right now. This is why critical science studies are so important right now.

  8. Rosalux
    December 23, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    I think the best part of any discussion of reparations is that it puts into the public record and consciousness that these practices existed.

    I have run into more people who simply do not believe forced sterilizations ever occurred, or if they did that they were all over the country, or that even if they were done all over the country it was a race or class issue and not “just” eugenics against people with mental retardation.

  9. posey
    December 23, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I wish the US Government offer reparations to all the Puerto Rican Women who they sterilized over the years. I am not even sure many people are aware of the massive sterilization that occur in Puerto Rico.
    …There are a number of examples in post Civil War America of eugenic programs but none as effective and widespread as the mass female sterilization in Puerto Rico. Beginning in the years following WW I, a program was initiated by the United States government, the medical community and the local government of Puerto Rico, to name a few, which resulted in the unprecedented sterilization of 1/3 of the female population by 1965, and the continued use of sterilization on a broad scale by Puerto Rican women as a form of birth control (Presser 1980)…

    By 1980, Puerto Rico had the HIGHEST incidence of female sterilization in the world.

  10. Bitter Scribe
    December 23, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    ONE-THIRD of Puerto Rico women were sterilized in the 1960s?


    Columbus and his minions, IIRC, wiped out an indigenous race on Puerto Rico, through slaughter and disease, so thoroughly that no trace of them remains. I guess we were going for Round 2.

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