Family Matters

North Carolina Mulls Compensating Victims of Forced Sterilization

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Jim R. Bounds / AP

Having a baby is a widely anticipated milestone for many adults, so it’s easy to imagine the shock endured by thousands of people who were forcibly sterilized by the government beginning before World War II. Now, North Carolina has become the first state to consider compensating the victims.

It was hardly unusual for states to be in the business of deciding who was entitled to become a parent. Many enacted eugenics laws, which called for the sterilization of people deemed feeble-minded or “unfit.” Of the more than 7,000 people North Carolina sterilized between 1929 and the 1970s, most were poor and uneducated, frequently girls who had given birth to babies as teens.

When Adolf Hitler’s government-mandated extermination of the Jews began to sound uncomfortably similar to U.S. eugenics programs, many states began tapering off the forced surgeries. But not North Carolina, where state-sponsored sterilizations actually increased after the Holocaust. It has joined a handful of other states in formally apologizing to the victims, but saying sorry doesn’t seem to cut it when it comes to stealing someone’s fertility.

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North Carolina employed social workers to coerce people into agreeing to be sterilized, and some of the victims have said they were lied to and reassured that the surgeries were reversible. Others didn’t understand the implications of what the social workers or physicians were saying.

On Wednesday, dozens of victims and their relatives addressed a state task force contemplating how to mete out compensation. They shared how their lives had been impacted emotionally, in terms of mental breakdowns and depression, and physically, from bleeding from the coerced surgeries. At a time when North Carolina, like many other states, is strapped for cash, it’s considering spending between $20,000 to $50,000 per victim to make amends.

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Yet a payout is far from certain. Although Gov. Bev Perdue made clear Wednesday that her sympathies lie with the victims, calling the sterilizations “reprehensible,” two previous commissions have failed to broker a deal.

According to the Winston-Salem Journal:

At $50,000 per victim, the state would pay out about $150 million, or less than 1 percent of the state’s annual general fund budget. Some victims and family members at Wednesday’s hearing felt that would be enough. Several called for a permanent memorial to victims. None seemed to think $20,000 was fair.

“Every time we go to put a number on it, it seems too small,” said Karen Beck, a Winston-Salem woman whose grandmother and great aunt were sterilized in the 1930s. “How do you choose a family line for extinction?”

Now it’s up to state legislators to decide how much, if anything, that bad decision is worth.

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