From 1933 to 1977, over 7,600 people in North Carolina — including girls raped by older men, individuals with epilepsy, individuals determined to be “feeble-minded,” teenagers from poor families, a 10-year-old boy, individuals with disabilities including blindness — were forcibly sterilized. While 31 other states also had eugenics programs (California and Virginia both sterilized more people), North Carolina‘s was the most aggressive. The state officially apologized to the victims in 2002 and has promised to provide some sort of compensation. Governor Bev Perdue has vowed to include funds in the 2012 budget for victims and has set up a task force whose final report is due in February. But the question of how much to compensate those who were forced to endure tubal ligation or a vasectomy has become a point of contention and all the more so in a year of budget cutbacks.
“How can you quantify how much a baby is worth to people?” asked Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which is financed by the state. “It’s not about quantifying the unborn child, it’s about the choices that were taken away.”
85 percent of those sterilized were girls and women, most from poor families; 40 percent were from racial minorities, as black Americans were more likely to be poor, uneducated and from rural families. North Carolina was the only state to give social workers the power to choose people for sterilization. Social workers often relied on I.Q. tests but “for some victims who often spent more time picking cotton than in school, the I.Q. tests at the time were not necessarily accurate predictors of capability.”
Wealthy businessmen created the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947. James Hanes, the hosiery magnate, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, were both members and supporters of the eugenics movement. As the director of the Mecklenburg County welfare department from 1945 to 1972, Wallace Kuralt, the father of the television journalist Charles Kuralt, drew “extensively” on the eugenics program, and more sterilizations were carried out in that county than any other.
65-year-old Nial Ramirez was the first to file a lawsuit against North Carolina’s eugenics board with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1973. She received a $7,000 settlement from the doctor. Ramirez was sterilized at 18 years old after giving birth to a daughter; a social worker from the Washington County Department of Public Welfare suggested she be sterilized and, not realizing that the procedure was irreversible and thinking that she had no choice for the sake of her siblings and her mother, Ramirez underwent the operation. Saying “you don’t know what my kids were going to be. You don’t know what kids God was going to give me,” she says that she does not want an apology and that she will not settle for any of the amounts mentioned.
Some have suggested $20,000 for a settlement. 57-year-old Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized at 14 after becoming pregnant from rape and whose illiterate grandmother signed the consent form with an X on the urging of social workers, has sued the state for $1 million. While her case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, it has refused to hear it.
62-year-old Charles Holt thinks $30,000 might be enough. Sent to a state institution for people with mental and emotional issues after “fighting at school and masturbating openly,” Holt undergoing a vasectomy seems to have been a condition of his being able to leave to begin his adult life. A social worker convinced his mother that he have the surgery, noting that it would protect him “in case he were falsely accused of having fathered a child.”
It takes my breath away to think that, had my teenage son Charlie, who’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, lived just half a century earlier, he could have suffered the same fate as Ramirez, Riddick and Holt.
The Winston-Salem Journal has an extensive report about forced sterilizations in North Carolina, including records from the Eugenics Board. Whatever settlements the state of North Carolina decides on, I don’t think it can ever be enough truly to compensate for the pain, suffering and inhumane treatment experiencing by too, too many.
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Photo by A.M/ Kuchling