Legislators considering H947, the Eugenics Compensation Program bill, have scheduled a public hearing for 2 p.m. today in Room 544 of the Legislative Office Building, 330 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh. The session is expected to attract a large audience, including some sterilization victims whose inquiries have been matched to North Carolina Eugenics Board records.
So far, 132 verifications have been made, including 118 living victims.
In Richmond County, there are 46 cases of people who were sterilized through the eugenics board.
If the bill is passed, victims of sterilization will become eligible to receive compensation in the form of $50,000.
“It will never make up for what was done to people,” said Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, who explained that the state is attempting to set a precedence, so something like this doesn’t happen again.
From 1929 until 1974, North Carolina’s Eugenics Board reviewed petitions and mandated the sterilization of anyone who didn’t meet criteria they viewed as favorable, such as IQ and looks. Many people were sterilized against their will, some without knowing. Some people were held against their will in institutions and threatened until they signed papers allowing doctors to sterilize them. Some people had their children sterilized if they thought they were too promiscuous.
There are many sides to the sterilization program, and each case is different. While some were sterilized in order to prevent reproduction, some women who wanted to be sterilized but were considered too beautiful were not given permission, said Cooper. Sterilization also allowed sexual abuse to remain hidden for many years, according to Cooper, who described a case where a father had his daughter sterilized and continued to abuse her.
“Most of the people that were sterilized in North Carolina were considered feeble-minded,” explained Cooper. “If you were raised in the inner city, or in the Triangle, and you went to medical school and then went out into rural communities in North Carolina where they didn’t have running water, you might think they were feeble-minded.”
Often, people who were perceived as sick were showing symptoms due to malnutrition, but were sterilized out of misunderstanding. Some people were considered ‘always dirty’ and the fact that they were farmers was ignored, said Cooper.
Cooper said that many of the leaders of North Carolina’s eugenics movement have passed on, but some of the doctors that were younger recall what they were asked to do.
“Some of the scientists felt they were doing the right thing and some never felt comfortable with it but did the job anyways. We haven’t heard from many doctors,” said Cooper.
The youngest victims were 10 years old, and 60 percent of the victims were white, with 85 percent of the victims being women.
“We’ve gotten calls where the entire family was sterilized, all siblings and the mother,” said Cooper.
In the process, women had their Fallopian tubes tied, burned or cut, ovaries removed and sometimes given a complete hysterectomy. Men were given vasectomies and sometimes castrated. Because of this, the victims lived in shame and many never spoke about the way their lives were changed.
“They don’t want anyone to know,” said Cooper. “There were men who were sterilized who said to us that when they told people what happened to them, they were told ‘that is what they do to people who mess with little children (pedophiles).’”
The youngest victims who are still living are seniors now. If you know someone who you believe or you know was a victim of the eugenics program, begin the conversation respectfully, and if they do not wish to speak about what happened to them, you should respect that as well, Cooper advised.
Cooper said the foundation is counting on nursing home staff, CNAs and private nurses to help identify victims and give them a chance to be compensated.
“Some people thought they were having their appendix removed,” said Cooper. “So if you have some scars near your genital organs that you aren’t sure about, don’t be afraid to ask.”
Cooper said each case is different.
“There is no one-size-fits-all, there is no way to compare — they are all awful,” she said.
State Rep. Ken Goodman said he anticipates an almost unanimous vote for the passing of bill H947.
“I don’t think there’s any question that’s what’s going to happen,” said Goodman. “I think it was a dark day in North Carolina’s history and something should be done. We can never rectify what has been done but it’s an attempt by the state. It’s appropriate, and a gesture on the part of North Carolina. I will vote for this.”
If you believe you or someone you know may have been affected by the N.C. Eugenics Board program, you can call a toll-free hotline at 877-550-6013 or 919-807-4270. You can also visit a website for more information at www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.