The tears of eugenics victims and their weakened champion’s return to Raleigh in a wheelchair made the House committee vote endorsing compensation for people sterilized under the auspices of a government board more emotional than a run-of-the-mill debate on a bill.
The meeting room was nearly quiet Tuesday afternoon as Rep. Larry Womble, a Winston-Salem Democrat, urged the House Judiciary committee to endorse $50,000 payments for eugenics victims as a moral right. The committee approved the bill to applause from the audience, and it now moves to the House budget committee.
From 1933 to 1974, a board created by the legislature ordered that “mentally diseased, feeble-minded or epileptic” people be sterilized. The board also ordered sterilized people who were poor or who were thought likely to have disabled children. Other states had eugenics programs, but North Carolina’s was one of the most robust. The board authorized the sterilization of about 7,600 people. About 1,500 to 2,000 are thought to still be alive.
Womble has been fighting for compensation for victims for 11 years. He had to make a special effort to make it to Raleigh on Tuesday. He was gravely injured in a car accident last year that killed another driver. Womble has lost weight, his voice is weaker, and his legs are elevated in the wheelchair he uses.
“This is not a perfect bill,” Womble started, almost in a whisper, “but it is a bill that separates North Carolina from the rest of the world.”
Under the bill, people verified by a state Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims and determined eligible by the Industrial Commission would each receive $50,000.
The N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation has identified 132 people as being sterilized under the board’s auspices, and 118 are still living, said foundation executive director Charmaine Fuller Cooper.
The bill sets a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for filing a claim. People alive as of March 1, 2010, would be eligible.
Womble urged unanimous support from the committee.
“You will be on the side of right,” Womble said.
But the vote was not unanimous.
Several committee members, including Rep. George Cleveland, an Onslow County Republican, were opposed.
Cleveland said eugenics was “despicable to say the best for it,” but no other states compensated victims.
Eugenics was a worldwide movement, he said, and 33 other states had eugenics programs. Seven or eight states have apologized but none has paid compensation .
People today should not have to pay for past wrongs, he said. “I don’t believe this is right.”
Former Gov. Mike Easley offered an apology in 2002, but the move for compensation stalled for years.
Last year, Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, appointed a task force to consider compensation, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said he wanted a compensation plan approved this year.
Rep. Paul Stam, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislature could not fix all the problems of the past or change history, but it could help the people still living whose bodies were changed against their will by a state agency.
“We ought to do it and get it done so they can enjoy it before they die,” said Stam, an Apex Republican and House majority leader.
Elaine Riddick, a former North Carolina resident who is known nationally for having been sterilized as a teenager after she was raped, said she was pleased that the committee endorsed the bill.
But she wept after hearing legislators criticize it. “Their mentality overtook the joy,” she said.
Riddick said her young body was damaged by the rape and the sterilization.
“The pain is real,” said Riddick, 58, wiping away tears. “I was 15 years old. I never had a life.”