Point of View

Eugenics: The state can still act

August 7, 2012 

Several hundred aging survivors of North Carolina’s eugenics program were double crossed by callous state senators who failed to pass overdue compensation for their forced sterilizations. Gov. Beverly Perdue and the House of Representatives signed off on a commission’s recommendation that each living victim receive $50,000. This culminated more than a decade of hard work by advocates.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R.- Rockingham, pledged his support at the beginning of the recent legislative session. However, when the dust settled, the Senate never even voted on the compensation measure. Republican Sen. Don East said the state’s past actions were regrettable but “money would not fix the problem.”

Some 7,600 predominately low-income and disproportionately black citizens were sterilized by the state against their will in order to prevent “defectives” from having multiple pregnancies and increasing welfare rolls. Eugenics activity was official state policy from 1929 to 1977. Breeding for quality was a worldwide passion, especially in Nazi Germany.

I was involved in preparing sterilization paperwork as a fledgling county social worker in the early 1970s. Progressive national and state foundations supported the practice, as did many universities and hospitals. Most other states ended state-sponsored sterilizations after World War II, but North Carolina increased the operations in the 1960s. Gov. Mike Easley officially apologized for the state’s heinous actions in 2002.

This July, the Senate resorted to cowardly protests that paying compensation might open North Carolina up to future financial liability.

Victims have until now never sued the state for compensation. However, state responsibility is voluminously documented by the general statutes of the time, thousands of case records, academic studies of eugenics and the heart-wrenching stories of the few hundred living victims who would benefit from compensation.

Liability has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, and the senators’ excuses represent only gutless political babble.

Gov. Perdue should use her remaining tenure to provide a measure of justice for victims. She and other Democratic leaders are far from blameless. For over 10 years the Democratic-controlled legislature, with Perdue serving as a top Senate budget writer, turned a deaf ear to the crusade by Rep. Larry Womble, D.-Forsyth, and others who pleaded in vain for compensation. Blame falls on many state leaders from both parties.

Perdue should immediately take action to:

•  Reach out to our hospitals, philanthropic foundations and corporations for donations to partially offset the cost of compensation. Many of those organizations openly supported forced sterilization or practiced “wicked silence.”

•  Increase the compensation to $100,000 per victim with strict eligibility verification. Few victims are still alive, so the cost is relatively low.

•  Convene a special session of the General Assembly to provide matching funds at the rate of two state dollars for every private dollar raised by the governor’s efforts.

•  Implement a state-funded health program for the surviving victims to provide treatment for physical or mental problems directly associated with sterilizations. Hospitals that performed sterilizations could donate free care.

•  Mail compensation checks to living victims by Dec. 1.

That we as a state ever embraced sterilization as public policy is an ethical and moral outrage. The fact that Senate Republicans blocked the latest modest attempt at compensation is an act of insensitive cowardice.

Perdue and Berger should immediately join forces to forge bipartisan justice for the aging victims of this barbaric policy. North Carolina’s national reputation is at stake. The governor can’t undo the past. However, with Berger’s help, she can initiate a plan which leads to healing, justice and some personal closure for the living victims.

William C. Crawford (bcraw44@gmail.com) is a longtime social worker who lives in Winston-Salem. He was co-chair of the “Who Will Save the Children?” Coalition that sought to reform the State Child Protective Services system and was a charter member of the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force. He also taught social work and family policy at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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