N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis said Wednesday that he wants the legislature to vote next year on a plan to compensate people who were sterilized under the authority of the state Eugenics Board.
"The victims of state-sponsored eugenics need to have it made right," said Tillis, a Mecklenburg Republican. Even if money isn't immediately available, Tillis said, approval of a compensation plan would show that state officials are serious about paying for "a very dark chapter in our history" during which government officials, doctors and social workers across North Carolina deemed thousands of people unfit to have children.
Tillis said he is not ready to recommend a specific compensation figure.
The Eugenics Board authorized sterilization of about 7,600 North Carolinians between 1929 and 1974. Mecklenburg County did the most by far of any county - 485 between 1946-68, when the state kept its best records. Wake County performed 114 in that period, and Durham County performed 82.
Eugenics Board guidelines allowed for sterilizing people with mental illness, people with epilepsy, or people classified as "feebleminded," which usually meant a low score on an IQ test. But the board also looked at other factors, including poverty, lack of education and allegations of promiscuity. Most of the people sterilized were women or girls, some as young as 10.
Tillis' commitment brought cheers from people who had feared that many of the estimated 1,500 living victims could die before the state makes good on official apologies.
"Coming from the speaker, that carries a lot of weight," said Rep. Larry Womble, a Winston-Salem Democrat who has repeatedly introduced bills for compensation. The current one suggests $20,000 for each living victim, which would cost $30 million if 1,500 people came forward.
Under two previous speakers, both Democrats, the bills never came out of committee for a vote, Womble said.
The legislature has adjourned for this year; the 2012 "short session," which convenes in May, is the next opportunity.
Gov. Bev Perdue created the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation last year to find survivors. The foundation has a task force that is trying to decide whether the state should compensate survivors, and if so, for how much.
But the foundation doesn't have the resources to find survivors; it depends on news stories to let people know it exists. So far, just 34 people who have called in have matched Eugenics Board records.
Perdue was not available for comment Wednesday; her staff said she was occupied with preparations for Hurricane Irene.
Sterilizations in U.S.
The North Carolina program was one of many across the country that stemmed from the theory of eugenics - the idea that the human race would be better off if parents with undesirable traits had fewer children. North Carolina is unusual in seeking victims and considering voluntary compensation.
The quest is drawing national attention. Womble said NBC News will interview him about it today.
Tillis said he learned about the sterilization program a couple of years ago and has since attended hearings and meetings with Womble and other legislators to discuss next steps. He said the stories of a handful who have spoken publicly convinced him that the state did a grave wrong.
"I think some people perceive this to be some sort of partisan thing," Tillis said. "It really isn't."
Eugenics Board records show that cases ranged from impoverished married couples with large families who asked to have the wife's tubes tied to adolescent victims of incest and rape whose guardians sought to "protect" them by ensuring they couldn't get pregnant. Tillis said a compensation program might need some review to distinguish between those who were wronged and those who wanted the operations.
Dr. Laura Gerald, chairwoman of the compensation task force, said it is good to hear Tillis' support for compensation. She said it's the first feedback she has heard from legislative leaders.
The task force will make a recommendation to the governor in February. Members have talked about a range of compensation figures.
"It's clear that there's no amount of monetary compensation that will make up for having sterilized someone," Gerald said. "What we're trying to balance is some recognition of the harm that has been done with some fair compensation, realizing that it has to be something that's achievable."