CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If a woman or man was deemed promiscuous or feeble, unfit or just poor, the state had the power to sterilize, often by coercion or without consent. Some had no idea the irreversible surgical procedures had been performed until years later, when they tried to become parents. Many suffered from depression and other ills as a result. And it happened over and over, through the mid-1970s.
This nightmare was not punishment doled out under a totalitarian foreign regime, but was a routine practice right here in the United States — right here in North Carolina. More than half of the states instituted eugenics programs in the early 20th century, but most abandoned them after World War II, when the world had had enough of Hitler and Nazi Germany’s solutions to social engineering. In contrast, North Carolina ramped up its program; between 1929 and 1974, about 7,600 men, women and children were sterilized.
The state, which was already one of just a handful to apologize, took a step toward reconciliation and relief when it decided to pay $50,000 to each living victim. The figure — “chump change” one victim called it — was seen as a compromise in cash-strapped 2012, when many taxpayers have no patience for something they see as ancient history. According to a report in the Charlotte Observer, the state estimates that 1,500 to 2,000 of the victims are still alive, though as of Tuesday, only 72 had come forward and been verified.
The living victims and the families of the dead who suffered would disagree that it’s all in the past. In an NPR report, 59-year-old Janice Black — 14 when social workers recommended she be sterilized — said, “No amount of money is going to give back what was already taken from you.”
A governor’s task force came up with the amount, which still has to be approved by the legislature. Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis has said he supports some sort of compensation. In a statement, Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, said:
“While no amount of money will ever make up for the fact that government officials deprived North Carolinians, mostly women, of the possibility of having children — and officials did so, in most cases, without the victims’ consent or against their will — we must do something. I support the task force’s compensation proposal. I also agree that we should establish a permanent exhibit so that this shameful period is never forgotten.”
Elaine Riddick, who has fought for compensation for 25 years, said on NPR: “You just have to accept it. And with the mental health benefits, I think I would be able to get the help that I need to get over this.”
Doctors, nurses and social workers of the time have said they thought they were doing something good. Some, like longtime Mecklenburg County welfare director Wallace Kuralt, were honored at the time as champions of women and the poor. In the present, we look on their views through the eyes of those whose broken lives they left behind.
During a political campaign in which candidates sit in judgment of private behavior between adults, it’s important to pay attention to what can happen when the government comes between you and your body.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.