Delores Marks holds a photograph of her mother, sterilization victim Margaret Helen Cheek.
Last year, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue convened a task force to examine her state’s history of forced sterilization — in which residents were rendered permanently infertile if they were deemed somehow genetically “inferior” — and determine what reparations it could offer the victims. In January, the task force issued a report [.pdf] detailing the awful history of sterilization, and recommending that each living victim receive $50,000 as well as mental health services paid for by the state.
These recommendations still have to pass the state legislature, but Gov. Perdue told me that she’s confident that they will — hopefully by the end of the summer. She says the plan is “a bipartisan solution to something that is heinous in North Carolina’s history,” adding that she hopes the legislation “at least in some way helps folks understand that the government admits they did wrong.”
Gov. Beverly Perdue.
North Carolina’s sterilization program was not unique, however — it was part of a nationwide eugenics movement, which sought to remove “undesirable” traits from the population at large. Eugenics in America began, at least legally, in 1907, when Indiana passed a law demanding mandatory sterilization for “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists” in state custody.
Sterilization victims were given vasectomies or tubal ligations, meaning (in most cases) they could never have more children. Charles Holt wasn’t told he was getting a vasectomy at the age of 19: “The doctor told me I couldn’t go home unless I had an operation done,” he told the New York Times in December. “When I woke up I tried to walk, and I said: ‘This ain’t right. I don’t even remember them shaving me down there.’ ” A doctor cauterized Elaine Riddick’s fallopian tubes after she gave birth to her only child at 14. A third victim was told she was getting an appendectomy as a teenager. Instead, she was sterilized in a botched operation that caused her health problems into her twenties.
Sterilization victim Elaine Riddick cries as she speaks to media.
Those sterilized included not just criminals, but people with physical disabilities or mental illnesses, or anyone considered “feeble-minded” for any reason. One North Carolina man was sterilized as a teenager because he had masturbated in public and was deemed “of low mentality.”
He wasn’t the only one sterilized as a child — North Carolina’s program targeted kids as young as 10. In the Fifties, the state sterilized nearly 1000 people under the age of 19.
Poverty was also an excuse for sterilization, since eugenicists believed being poor was hereditary. A 1927 Supreme Court decision held that sterilization was permissible to “prevent those who are manifestly unfit from reproducing their kind.” Poor and working-class women were often placed in state mental institutions solely for the purpose of sterilizing them.
Women in general were more likely to be sterilized than men. In North Carolina, 85% of people sterilized were female. According to a book on the subject by Rebecca M. Kluchin, eugenics programs all over the country initially targeted men, but over time turned their attention disproportionately to women. By 1961, about 61% of those sterilized nationwide were female.
Over time, North Carolina’s program also disproportionately targeted black people. Overall, 40% of those sterilized in North Carolina were people of color — most were black or Native American. By the later Sixties, though, 60% of victims were black, though black people made up only a quarter of the state population.
Eugenics in America lasted until at least 1974. That’s when the North Carolina Eugenics Board stopped its operations. Most other states appear to have stopped by then. But the Human Betterment League, which provided funding for eugenics, stayed open in North Carolina until the mid-1980s.
Dr. Laura Gerald, chairman of the Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force.
By that time, over 60,000 people had been sterilized nationwide. And that’s probably a low estimate. According to that North Carolina state task force’s report, many more undocumented sterilizations may have occurred. At least 32 states had involuntary sterilization programs. California, Virginia, and North Carolina sterilized the highest numbers of people, and North Carolina is believed to have the greatest number of victims living today.
Perdue says she hopes North Carolina’s program becomes a model for other states. She’s introduced into reparations legislation the requirement that the state develop a traveling exhibit to teach people what happened to sterilization victims. “I think it’s really important for all of us to understand our history, and how easily things like this can happen again,” she says.
The traveling exhibit was also recommended in the task force’s report. They wrote, “North Carolina violated the most basic rights of its citizens through an abuse of science and social policy. Today, the state must do everything it can to make sure that it never repeats those abuses.”
North Carolina’s efforts are prompting residents of other states to ask lawmakers what they’re doing for victims. Last year, author Edwin Black asked in the Roanoke Times, “Should Virginia follow in the footsteps of North Carolina, and who should pay compensation?” This January, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to Georgia lawmakers about the possibility of reparations there. And just last month, CNN investigated what California legislators were doing for eugenics victims.
None of these three states has any plans as yet for reparations. But now that North Carolina has put the issue back in the spotlight, they may have reason to reconsider. California civil rights attorney Areva Martin told CNN, “to think that we’re behind on this issue instead of leading on this issue is very troublesome.” And if states feel behind enough, they may be forced to act.
Elaine Riddick holds hands with her only son, conceived before she was sterilized.