By Aly Mance, WLP Intern
North Carolina lawmakers decided last week that compensation will be paid to the victims of the state’s past eugenics program, run between 1929 and 1974. Eugenics is the belief that the human species can be improved by discouraging those perceived to possess inheritable undesirable traits from reproducing (negative eugenics) and/or encouraging reproduction by those persons perceived to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).
The North Carolina decision originates from a 2011 appointment by then-governor Beverly Perdue (D) of a taskforce to address North Carolina’s responsibility to its 7,600 eugenics victims. Some victims were as young as 10 years old and nearly all were sterilized forcibly or with inadequate consent, according to the state. The decision to compensate victims is the first of its kind, even though North Carolina is but one of over 30 states with a history of eugenics programs. North Carolina legislators have yet to decide the amount victims will receive in large part due to a lack of statistics on how many victims are still living and will be willing to come forward.
It is understandable that many individuals would not want to come forward. While reproductive justice is a topic of constant attention today, it has yet to become an issue without attached shame and stigma. A woman’s ability to choose whether or when to have children is a right, one furthered by technological, medicinal, and philosophical advances. Historically, however, those same sorts of advances were used through the eugenics movement to target such rights. North Carolina’s eugenics program was run by a state board, as well as counties, and authorized social workers to determine whether an individual should be sterilized. These decisions were informed by a philosophy that humanity would benefit from a forcible control of the gene pool. One major belief was that such policies could end poverty and reduce welfare needs, and such factors as IQ, perceived mental disability or sexual promiscuity were influential in the decisions.
Although eugenics programs were not explicitly designed to target individuals based on gender or race, 85% of victims were female and 40% were racial minorities. Such disproportion is vital to understanding the eugenics movement as it reflects our society. The sterilizations were an act of extreme social control and individuals’ stories shed light on the way the sterilization was a victimization. In many cases, victims were not told about the surgery, led to believe they were having appendectomies or other procedures only to find out their inability to have children years later. Others were given misleading information not indicating the permanence of their decision. In addition, threats of withdrawal of welfare funding from families was used to coerce these decisions.
North Carolina House speaker Thom Tillis (R) said of the state’s $10 million eugenics restitution budget: “I hope this provides some closure to what I believe is one of the darkest chapters in the state’s history.” While North Carolina’s attempts at amends are to be commended, in closing this dark chapter we must not forget it. Vital lessons can be learned through the story of the eugenics movement about valuing and protecting diversity, and especially the fundamental power of reproductive choices.