Eugenics victims get a say

Staff WriterJune 6, 2011 

  • The Governor's Task Force to Determine the Method of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina's Eugenics Board will hold a session at 10 a.m. June 22 in Suite 200 of the Governor's Crime Commission, 1201 Front St., Raleigh. For more information, call 877-550-6013 or visit www.sterilization victims.nc.gov .

— RALEIGH -- For more than four decades, North Carolina sterilized people as young as 10 to eliminate traits it considered inferior and hereditary: poor, undereducated, epileptic, mentally unstable and sexually promiscuous.

Later this month, victims of the state's eugenics law will be asked to share their stories with a governor's task force and to suggest ways of compensation.

Former Gov. Mike Easley apologized to the 7,600 victims in 2002, but none of them has been compensated in any way.

"I hope the victims feel free to share their stories and thoughts on what the state can do to compensate them for the injustice that was done to them," task force member Phoebe Zerwick said.

"I think it's important for us not to decide on a package or a figure on behalf of a group of people," said Zerwick, a former reporter and editor at the Winston-Salem Journal and now a lecturer at Wake Forest University.

After listening to the victims, the task force will submit a report to state legislators, who will then decide whether and how to compensate them.

Asking people to describe their past pain is difficult, said Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, a division of the state Department of Administration.

"For some people it might be able to provide a level of healing, even though they are asked to open their wounds," Fuller Cooper said.

Between 1920s and 1970s, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina held the legal power to sterilize people it deemed unfit to be parents. The surgical procedures involved removing or cutting Fallopian tubes or ovaries in women and castration and vasectomy - severing the tubes between testicles and prostate - in men.

Women most affected

The demographics of the victims changed over time, said Johanna Schoen, a history professor at the University of Iowa and author of "Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare."

Before the 1930s, the targeted population was those in the state hospitals.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the population shifted to white women, partly because many of them received welfare.

In the 1960s, the number of sterilized black women peaked, after welfare became available to blacks, Schoen said.

Women represent 85 percent of people targeted under the law.

"It was always people who were determined inferior, who were draining the system," Fuller Cooper said.

A pamphlet published in 1950 by the Human Betterment League of North Carolina, a Winston-Salem organization that promoted sterilization, reveals a common sentiment of the day.

"You wouldn't expect a moron to run a train, or a feeble-minded woman to teach school. You wouldn't want the state to grant driver's licenses to mental defectives," it says.

"Yet each day the feebleminded and mentally defective are entrusted with the most important and far reaching job of all ... the job of parenthood!"

Most states terminated their state-enforced sterilization in the 1940s when the Nazis touted similar rhetoric, sterilizing hundreds of thousands people, Fuller Cooper said.

But a reverse trend occurred in North Carolina - the state program picked up after the 1940s, then peaked during the 1950s and 1960s, before ending in the '70s.

"Which is why we have more victims who are living," Fuller Cooper said. About 2,944 people, or 39 percent of those forcibly sterilized, are thought to be still alive.

Role of social workers

Another unique trend was that North Carolina was the only state using social workers to urge sterilization, she said.

Victims have told stories about social workers threatening to cut off their benefits if they refused to undergo surgeries. Sterilization was also used as a condition of release from state hospitals in some cases.

For those victims who were silenced and told that nothing could be done to reverse their situations, the task force wants to make sure that the wrong done to them is acknowledged, Fuller Cooper said.

State legislators will vote on whether or how to compensate the victims of sterilization, even though, Fuller Cooper said, "No amount of money will take away the hardship and memory caused by the program."

regina.wang@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4918

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