Is $50,000 enough for victims of North Carolina's sterilization program?

Is $50,000 enough for victims of North Carolina's sterilization program?

These days, the word “eugenics” is an ugly term. We think of Hitler, the Nazis and notions of a superior Aryan race. But there was a time, here in the United States, when eugenics was not only thought of highly but practiced.

This week, one state–North Carolina–that operated such a program in the name of ridding society of the criminal, mentally ill and making sure poor and minority folks couldn’t reproduce is trying to decide how much to compensate victims for their pain.

$50,000 is the number they’ve landed on. That’s what a state task force recommended this week. The amount still has to be approved by state legislators, who will have to approve the restitution money at a time when the state faces a $2 billion budget shortfall for 2013.

In the United States, more than 65,000 people were sterilized in 33 states, often without their knowledge, were forcibly sterilized. Although these programs are over now, their ugly history lives on. North Carolina’s program sterilized around 7,600 people from 1929 to 1974 as part of its welfare program.

A few of these victims were interviewed in The New York Times. Many have died or have not yet come forward. One woman, Rita Thompson Swords, said she was pleased with the amount, and it would help her greatly. But another, Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized after she was raped at 13-years-old, said it wasn’t enough.

“They took away something from me that was so valuable that I can never get back,” she said.

Dr. Laura Gerard, head of the state task force that recommended the amount, went on to say that paying restitution sent the message that citizens of her state “do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights.” I admit, I found that statement a little odd. The state did, in fact, tolerate trampling on people’s basic human rights for 45 years. Paying up now seems to say that forced sterilization is tolerated at the amount of $50,000 a head.

Forced sterilization programs aren’t just part of the history of many states. Oregon performed its last forced sterilization in 1981. The state used sterilization as a way to punish criminals who acted out in prison and punish homosexuals, as well as forcibly sterilizing “wayward girls” living in state custody. California sterilized more than 20,000 of its citizens.

When I googled “welfare sterilization” this morning to find out more about the history of such programs, I was shocked that the first results I came upon weren’t historical articles or shocked apologies. There were articles saying we should bring back these practices. One even questioned if it was unethical to forcibly sterilize people. Are we really still asking these questions?

Do you think $50,000 is enough compensation for these victims? Is money the best way to help ensure that such programs won’t happen again? Tell us what you think. Take our poll or leave a comment.

Photo credit: lunar caustic

© Community Renewal Society 2011


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    I think the answer to the question is obvious and I think its shocking for many Americans, as you point out, to read that many states engaged in these forced sterilizations. How do you compensate someone for the loss of something so central to human existence: the ability to procreate. You can't. The $50,000 can only be viewed as an acknowledgement of wrongdoing by North Carolina; a wrongdoing that cannot be remedied any other way. I would say that if the state offered $1,000,000 therew ould be many who would say that isn't enough. It is remarkable enough that a state with as dark a past on racial segregation as North Carolina would even admit to this in the first place and accept responsibility to the tune of what will ultimately be millions in compensation to the victims. Justice isn't always perfect, but sometimes we must accept that even when imperfect, it serves the societal good of placing us further down the road from our worst moments.

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