Point of View

Compensate N.C.'s sterilization victims

May 19, 2011 

— For decades, North Carolina tried to discourage the reproduction of individuals who possessed "undesirable" genetic traits. This practice, known as negative eugenics, led to the state's forced sterilization program.

It's been reported in recent years that during this dark chapter in North Carolina's history, about 7,600 individuals were forcibly sterilized from 1929 until as late as the 1970s. North Carolina should try to right this wrong by financially compensating the estimated 2,900 living victims of this program.

Individuals were sterilized if they were deemed to be epileptic or "mentally diseased." There also was the catch-all category of feeblemindedness that covered more than 70 percent of all sterilizations. If sterilizations were for the public good, nothing else mattered, even if the sterilizations weren't in the best interests of individuals.

A government body called the North Carolina Eugenics Board heard sterilization petitions. The board rarely rejected those petitions, rubber-stamping about 90 percent of them. In practice, the board approved sterilizations of people whose behavior board members deemed unacceptable, such as alleged female promiscuity or homosexuality.

Many brave individuals have come forward and explained their tragic stories about the state's eugenics program. In many examples, the state imposed excessive coercion, such as threatening to withhold welfare payments unless an individual accepted sterilization.

North Carolina was not unique in running a forced sterilization program. More than 30 states had similar laws, but North Carolina was one of the few states that failed to learn the lesson from the Nazis' use of negative eugenics.

While most states ramped down their sterilizations after World War II, North Carolina drastically ramped them up. More than three-fourths of all North Carolina sterilizations took place after 1945.

Compensating eugenics victims would help make up for the state's wrongful actions. The government, by forcibly sterilizing citizens, was interfering with one of the most important fundamental rights, both in nature and in law.

As it's reasonably argued, compensating these victims could provide ammunition for those who support slavery reparations. But there's a clear distinction. Unlike the case of slavery reparations, eugenics victims are still alive. The direct harm imposed is clear.

If eugenics victims could have gone to court and received compensation, then there wouldn't be an issue about compensating them now. Unfortunately, the judiciary failed to do its job in protecting individual rights. In fact, the entire sterilization movement never would have gotten off the ground if it weren't for the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Buck v. Bell.

In holding that forced sterilization was constitutional, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote one of the most chilling passages in the court's history: "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

In 1976, the N.C. Supreme Court in a case called In re Moore held that forced sterilization was constitutional. The court went as far as arguing that the legislature had a duty to enact sterilization laws.

Current state legislation, House Bill 70, would award eugenics victims $20,000 each. Coincidentally, this is the same amount provided to living victims of the Japanese World War II internment camps under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

While financial compensation for victims is critical, learning the proper lessons is just as important. We always should be wary of claims that the greater good justifies the government violating fundamental rights. We certainly shouldn't give the government a green light to violate those rights without any real oversight and with virtually unlimited power, as was the case with the eugenics program.

There always will be claims from so-called experts, 20th century eugenicists included, that rights should be violated. If we want to live in a free society, we need to remember that rights must be protected, especially when it might not be popular to do so.

Daren Bakst, an attorney, is director of legal and regulatory studies for the John Locke Foundation.

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