North Carolina will offer some amount of compensation to victims of its eugenics program

[Strong content note for ableism and racism]

The state of North Carolina has passed a $10 million compensation plan for victims of its eugenics program, which ran from 1929 to 1974. It’s estimated that 7,600 people were forcibly sterilized under the program; 177 have since been identified. Currently, the victims will each receive no more than $56,500 each, and that number is expected to drop as more victims are verified to draw from that one $10 million fund. Payments will start in the summer of 2015.

A 1950s pamphlet for the program describes it as “voluntary sterilization” to “protect” people with disabilities “from jobs for which they are not qualified” — specifically, parenting — and to protect “children, for no child should be born to subnormal parents.” In actuality, the program was far from voluntary. Targeted for forced sterilization were people with intellectual disabilities in or out of institutions, children with criminal records, and unwed mothers. Also heavily targeted were poor women, particularly poor African-American women.

About 70 percent of forced sterilizations in North Carolina occurred after 1945, according to state officials. Policies noticeably deviated after the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when minorities were allowed access to welfare benefits and state institutions. Unlike in other states, social workers in North Carolina were able to propose sterilization.

“The vicious notion of the black ‘welfare mother’ gaming the system emerged,” [University of Vermont sociology professor Lutz] Kaelber said. “It was believed that some among the poor, particularly African-Americans, would have a financial incentive to have a large number of children and pass on negative characteristics to these children.”

The Al Jazeera article highlighs the story of Willis Lynch, who was sterilized at age 14 at the Caswell Training School for Mental Defectives; sterilization was required before children there could be returned to their families.

It also tells the story of Elaine Riddick, who was raped at age 13 and became pregnant; because of a period of time when she’d struggled in school because of bullying, she’d been labeled “feeble-minded,” and because she’d gotten pregnant she’d been labeled “promiscuous,” and so a social worker threatened to cut off welfare benefits to her household unless her custodial grandmother agreed to have her sterilized. Doctors performed a tubal ligation when they delivered her baby by C-section; she only found out about it six years later when she was unable to get pregnant. Her doctor discovered “that I had been butchered and I had been sterilized,” Riddick says. “I was devastated.”

Kaelber says other victims of the forced sterilization program might not come forward to collect their compensation out of a sense of shame. “It’s sometimes still seen as a stain on the family, on the family’s lineage,” he says. “The marginalization of people who have been sterilized has not gone away.”

12 comments for “North Carolina will offer some amount of compensation to victims of its eugenics program

  1. EG
    September 27, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    There isn’t enough compensation in the world. There just isn’t.

    Which doesn’t mean NC shouldn’t be doing its damnedest. I’m glad they are; my recollection is that their previous decision was that allowing compensation for victims of policies that had been legal at the time would just be a terrible idea, because it would open the floodgates. I mean, what then if descendents of slaves tried to gain compensation? What if Native Americans did? What then?

    I’m not making that up. Those were literally the examples used. Because wouldn’t it be terrible if governments learned that they couldn’t engage in slavery or genocide without some possible consequences down the road?

  2. September 27, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    It has never escaped me that, in a different age, I might have been lobotomized and committed to a lunatic asylum for the rest of my life. My intense periods of depression and mania would have eventually frustrated what limited medical science existed then. The same thing happened to one of JFK’s sisters, Rosemary.

    And, though I invoke this comparison lightly, I would have been sent to the gas chambers or at minimum a concentration camp for being mentally ill in Hitler’s Germany.

    • shfree
      September 27, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      ….This comment and the invoking of the concentration camps, it makes me feel oogy. Like you want a cookie for possibly being a target for Hitler if you had been alive and in Germany back in the day. And given that there is at least one person who has actually lost family members to concentration camps on the site, it’s really insensitive.

      • Bagelsan
        September 27, 2013 at 8:22 pm

        I dunno, I think it’s worth remembering that Hitler targeted lots of people, not just Jews. Bringing up Nazi ableism on this thread in particular seems appropriate to me.

      • September 27, 2013 at 8:46 pm

        Not to mention that the Venn diagram of Jewish people and the disabled is not two circles.

      • shfree
        September 27, 2013 at 9:04 pm

        I know that he did target lots besides Jews, the Roma, LGBTQ as well. But it’s more that there are lots, and lots, and lots of us here that would have been targeted too. And we just move on with our lives.

      • shfree
        September 27, 2013 at 9:17 pm

        I should clarify. I could have been a target of the NC sterilization laws, but because I’m white, middle class, I’m reasonably sure I would not have been pursued aggressively for sterilization. So, the concept of the law, while it is offensive beyond the pale, doesn’t bother me on a visceral level, even though it was pointed at me. They had bigger fish to fry, as it were, and I would imagine it must hurt other people, like WOC, who would have been clearly vulnerable if they had lived in that time and in that area, on a level I really don’t quite get.

        I feel the same thing about the other comment. Because even though I would also have been a target, being bisexual, (I’m not sure if the Nazis were hunting epileptics or not, frankly, but if that crosses the Venn, that’s another) but again, it’s not a deeply personal hurt. And I just think that to have the subject mentioned lightly, when we know that someone here has family touched by the Holocaust, well, something needed to be said.

  3. karak
    September 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Considering the time period we’re talking about, my guess is a lot of the victims are dead, and many others are unaware that they were formally sterilized and just assumed they couldn’t have children for some unknown reason. Not to mention the people who genuinely were seriously developmental or cognitively disabled; they may never fully understand what was done to them or be able to navigate even application for compensation. Which, in a way, is more skin-crawlingly awful–victimize the most voiceless because you know they can’t scream. Ugh.

  4. pheenobarbidoll
    September 27, 2013 at 7:16 pm


  5. shfree
    September 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Epileptics were also sterilized, even though that shit is really hard to pin down as to whysomeone is epileptic. My maternal grandma apparently had seizures in her sleep for a bit, my nephew has it. Maybe it’s genetic, maybe it was due to that huge bump on the noggin I got when I was five and it just took fifteen years to manifest. All we know is that it wasn’t until the fourth EEG that any of the standard markers for epilepsy were actually caught on tape, as it were. So I’m left wondering if they were just going about sterilizing people who just had seizures due to any old mysterious reason, not epilepsy. Or was it just another convenient excuse on top of the racism, the other flavors of ableism, the classism, what have you. Kind of like their own assholish bingo card.

Comments are closed.