[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.”