IN A single year, 1935, physicians working for the state of North Carolina castrated or vasectomized 44 men (most of them black) and removed the fallopian tubes or ovaries of 179 women (most of them white). Almost all of these patients had been deemed mentally ill, epiletic or deficient in some way — “feebleminded,” in the parlance of the day. The operations were carried out surgically, legally and, in the vast majority of cases, forcibly; few of the victims consented.
North Carolina and 31 other states kept at it, decade after decade, intending to forge a scientifically enhanced race, purified of what they considered inferior genetic stock. A shocking number of American scholars, politicians and ethicists supported this pseudo-science known as eugenics. With the Supreme Court’s explicit blessing, some 65,000 Americans were subjected to forced sterilization, a policy of mass cruelty that crested in the 1940s and ’50s and lasted, in some states, into the '60s.
Not until 2002 did a single governor — Mark R. Warner (D) of Virginia — formally apologize for his state’s enthusiasm for eugenics. “[T]he eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved,” he said.
Mr. Warner’s statement, a courageous act of leadership, was a proper admission of guilt for government-sponsored barbarity. But it was only a start. Virginia has not matched its expression of sympathy and responsibility with compensation for the surviving victims.
North Carolina, which forcibly sterilized more than 7,500 people, now has taken that step. In the state’s budget this year, lawmakers included $10 million to compensate survivors who were sterilized, all of them now elderly. After several years of trying to identify and locate victims, officials estimate that only about 200 will be found and compensated, at a rate of about $50,000 each.
Virginia should follow suit. Along with North Carolina and California, its eugenics program was among the most aggressive in the nation. Indeed, a Virginia case inspired the Supreme Court decision, never explicitly rescinded, that sanctioned eugenics.
Critics grouse that a program of reparations could be too costly or set a precedent for others aggrieved by state government actions. Their complaints are bogus.
The number of people forcibly sterilized by Virginia is close to that of North Carolina; there’s no reason to think that Virginia would be able to track down significantly more victims than has North Carolina, nor that its exposure would be greater. If North Carolina can do the right thing by making $10 million in one-time payments, so can Virginia.
While unjust laws and policies have harmed innumerable individuals, the victims of forced sterilization are a discrete, living group, whose injury — the inability to conceive children — is real and tangible today.
As Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of North Carolina’s House of Representatives, put it: Forced sterilization is “the most egregious taking that government could possibly be guilty of. It was critical to close this chapter in our history.” Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) should lead accordingly.