A North Carolina task force formed by the governor will discuss early next month the possibility of being the first state to compensate victims of forced sterilization programs – programs that seemed to target the poor and disadvantaged, especially in the black population – which were conducted in the U.S. as recently as the late 1970s.
Between 1907 and 1979, 33 states had programs of forced sterilization. While many of those states have officially apologized to the victims of those programs, North Carolina is the first and only state to take steps toward compensation for those victims.
In March of this year, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue formed a task force, the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, to make a recommendation for the possible compensation of those who were forcibly sterilized under the North Carolina Eugenics Board program. The task force has held, and will continue to hold, public hearings on the matter. Its next meeting will be held Dec. 6 and its final report is due Feb. 1, 2012.
Forced sterilizations were used on people thought to have “defective genes,” which included the mentally ill, the physically deformed, the poor, criminals, and certain races and ethnicities. It was based upon a concept known as “eugenics.”
Eugenics was popular between 1900 and 1930 and was based upon “the notion that like produces like,” Professor Paul Lombardo explained in a Wednesday interview with The Christian Post. Lombardo is Bobby Lee Cook Professor of Law at Georgia State University and has authored several books on forced sterilization and eugenics.
Eugenics was based upon what was thought to be good science by almost everyone in the United States at the time. The science at the time only had a “rough” understanding of heredity and “didn't really understand genetics,” Lombardo explained. If two poor people had children, it was thought, those children would inherent traits that would make them poor. Forced sterilization of the poor, therefore, was thought to lead to the betterment of society. Many societal ills – poverty, crime, and disease, for instance – could be eradicated through compulsory sterilization, eugenicists argued.
Elaine Riddick is one those who spoke at the North Carolina hearings. Riddick was raped by a neighbor when she was 13 years old. After giving birth to a boy nine months later, she was sterilized without her knowledge or consent. It was not until she was 19 that she discovered what had happened to her.
“The state of North Carolina, they took something so dearly from me, something that was God given,” Riddick explained in a Nov. 7 interview on MSNBC.
Riddick had tried to sue the state for compensation. A jury decided that she should not be compensated because the state's actions were not illegal at the time. The case went to the Supreme Court of the United States, which refused to hear the case.
Eugenics influenced laws in four main areas, according to Lombardo. There were immigration limitation laws (for Italians and Jews), racial separation, or “Jim Crow,” laws, laws to prevent certain classes or races of people from getting married, and forced sterilization laws.
Eugenics influenced thought across the political spectrum. It was part of the Progressive Movement, which sought to use government to bring about positive social change, and it was supported by those who opposed the Progressive Movement. Madison Grant, for instance, was a conservative and authored a bestselling book called The Passing of the Great Race, which argued that some races were inferior to others. The book became influential in the United States and Adolf Hitler would refer to it as his “bible.”
“In general, the reason eugenics was so popular in America was not because of the negative parts,” Lombardo explained, “it was because of the hopeful parts.” The theory was seen as providing solutions to societies ills. Eugenics programs sought healthy babies, less disease and productive families.
Not everyone who believed in eugenics, however, supported compulsory programs. Though, some went to the opposite extreme and advocated euthanizing babies thought to be “defective.”
Riddick's sterilization was done because, the North Carolina Eugenics Board said, she was “promiscuous” and “feebleminded.” Riddick would later go to college and earn an AA degree.
“I have to carry these scars with me. I have to live with this for the rest of my life,” Riddick said.
No mandatory sterilization laws would be passed after 1937, but many of the programs would remain in place, some until the 1970s. Media attention was brought to the issue in the early 1970s and the remaining programs were abolished by 1979.
Lombardo believes that the victims of compulsory sterilization programs should be seen in the same way that society views wrongful incarceration. States generally compensate those who were sent to prison and later found innocent. “There hasn't been a groundswell of support for paying people who were sterilized, and I think that's just an inconsistency,” Lombardo said.
Some of the beliefs that led to forced sterilization programs can still be found in society today, Lombardo believes. “People continue to talk about poverty as if it is something you inherit from your parents and people who are poor should not be allowed to have children,” he said. “There are still people around who think that [sterilization] is an appropriate response.”