North Carolina Struggles with Legacy of Eugenics Program

The state of North Carolina is trying to determine how to compensate thousands of victims who were forcibly sterilized by the North Carolina eugenics program. According to The New York Times, any North Carolina restitution protocol could become a model for dozens of other states where similar eugenics programs were operated.

Eugenics became a wildly popular theory in the 1920s and 1930s. Prominent Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Margaret Sanger, enthusiastically backed eugenics programs as a way to eliminate poverty and strengthen the gene pool.

Starting in the early part of the century, eugenics programs were launched in dozens of states – 32 in all. Some, like North Carolina’s, operated for decades. According to The New York Times, some 65,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized. Many of the programs targeted the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill. But people with other conditions, including the blind, the deaf, and those with epilepsy or physical deformities were also forcibly sterilized. Women, the poor and racial minorities were disproportionately subjected to forced sterilization, either through coercion, or without authorities even bothering to obtain consent. In some case, victims didn’t even know they were sterilized until they tried years later to start a family.

According to The New York Times, no state’s forced sterilization program was more aggressive than the one operated by North Carolina. Between 1933 through 1977, the state eugenics board ordered the sterilization of 7,600 people. The majority of the procedures were performed on poor young women and racial minorities. Nonwhite minorities made up about 40 percent of those sterilized, and girls and women about 85 percent, according to the Times.

In North Carolina, social workers had the power to designate who would be sterilized. Most often, this was done through inaccurate IQ testing. Because many of those subjected to the tests spent little time in school, they were doomed to fail the exams.

In 2002, North Carolina apologized for its eugenics experiments, and now a five-member board chosen by the state’s governor, Democrat Bev Purdue, is trying to figure out how the surviving victims of the program should be compensated. While their final report is due in February, the panel did recently set some priorities, according to The Times. Money, they’ve decided, is the most important thing to offer victims, followed by mental health services. Now they must figure out what a person’s fertility is worth.

“How can you quantify how much a baby is worth to people?” asked Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which is financed by the state. “It’s not about quantifying the unborn child, it’s about the choices that were taken away.”

Even if the task force does come up with a just way to compensate people forcibly sterilized by the eugenics board, hundreds of other victims will be left out of the program. That’s because some counties, as well as some doctors who were part of the eugenics movement, ran their own sterilization programs. Victims sterilized at their hands won’t be able to take part in a state compensation fund, the Times said.

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