United in justice for NC eugenics victims

We were cheered to learn that the John Locke Foundation vigorously supports the position that the UNC Center for Civil Rights took back in August that victims who were forcibly sterilized by any government actor or agency should receive compensation from the state.

In helping people file claims under the 2013 North Carolina Eugenics Compensation statute, we discovered that, for many of them, there are no records in the State Eugenics Board archives. All of those people – the majority of them African-American women – have been deemed ineligible for compensation in the initial determination by the Industrial Commission, which probably explains (at least in part) the woefully low number of claims approved.

The initial determinations for the vast majority of claimants state that there is “insufficient evidence that the claimant was sterilized under authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina” because “no records from the Eugenics Board were found.”

In fact, these claimants were no less brutalized by the government than those victims for whom paperwork exists in the state archive. Many of those whose claims have been denied were either pressured into being sterilized by a county social services or “welfare” worker or were sterilized without their knowledge but under the “welfare” worker’s direction after giving birth or being hospitalized for some other procedure. There is no question these people were sterilized against their will, by state actors, under color of state law, with the state’s legal and political sanction.

The 1933 Session Law that established the Eugenics Board and refined the process for these sterilizations “for the public good” authorizes county hospitals and county welfare departments to “have (these involuntary sterilization) performed.”

The statute also says that the sterilization would not be lawful unless certain procedures were followed, including submission of a Petition for Sterilization to the Eugenics Board, signed by the head of the hospital, prison or “superintendent of public welfare ... of the county of which said inmate, patient or non-institutional individual to be sterilized is a resident.” Note that the only “lawful” sterilization that could take place in this state from 1933 until 1963, when another non-eugenics-related statute was passed, was one performed under authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina.

The experiences relayed to us by victims who have Eugenics Board documentation and those for whom the state found no such documentation are, in most cases, identical. For decades, it was the established public policy of this state that people whom the government deemed unfit to reproduce – because of “feeble mindedness,” “sexual promiscuity,” “criminality” or “pauper”status, among other state identified “defects” – could be sterilized against their will. If the county welfare department, acting pursuant to that public policy, failed to submit the proper paperwork 30 or 40 years ago, should the victim of the involuntary sterilization suffer again today for that failure? Should we not believe that the local government and hospital officials acted under the state authority? Is there any other way to reasonably give meaning and purpose to the intent of the compensation statute?

This is an issue on which there is emerging agreement across the political spectrum: The compensation statute should be broadly construed to recognize that these county welfare workers were acting under color of state law and in harmony with North Carolina’s eugenics policy and that anyone who was victimized by those local agents are the very people to whom this compensation statute seeks to make restitution. So let it be made.

Elizabeth Haddix is senior staff attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.