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.
- Illinois Legislation Would Prevent Forcible Sterilizations of People With Disabilities by Cara March 2, 2009
- Paying Poor Women for Sterilization by Jill September 29, 2008
- Why are poor people poor? It’s not the reason you thought! by Cara January 7, 2009
- #DearJohn: The GOP Seeks to Re-Define Rape and Restrict Reproductive Health Care by Jill January 31, 2011
- Six Women Murdered, Three Still Missing, and Nobody Seems to Notice by Cara August 26, 2009