North Carolina’s Eugenic Past

By Claire, Communications Intern

Way back when we started this blog we had a post about the now defunct sterilization program in North Carolina.  A formal apology was issued in 2002, but until now talk of compensation for the victims of the program had been stalled.  Governor Perdue has stated she is determined to fix that problem while she is in office.  She set up the NC Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation under the Department of Administration in order to “provide information and assistance to affected individuals.”  Currently the Governor’s Task Force is assessing the best method for compensation.

North Carolina operated its eugenics board and sterilization program from 1929 to 1974.  Thirty-one other states had eugenics programs during this time as well.  The goal of eugenics committees was to identify “degenerate elements” in American society and prevent them from reproducing and passing their “degenerate genetics” onto the next generation.  They were concerned with actual inheritable traits like epilepsy, and traits they assumed to be inheritable like alcoholism, promiscuity and “feeble-mindedness.”  In North Carolina the population viewed by the board to be degenerate was overwhelmingly female and disproportionately people of color.  One third of the sterilizations were performed on people under the age of 18.  At least 7, 600 people were sterilized in North Carolina; only around 2,000 are still alive.

Eliane Riddick, who we covered in our first eugenics post, is a perfect example of how terrible and misguided the eugenics movement was.  Riddick was raped by a neighbor when she was 13.  She became pregnant and the eugenics committee saw her as a prime candidate for sterilization.  Underage, black, poor, unwed and pregnant; she was everything they thought needed fixing in North Carolina.   Instead of helping Riddick through her traumatic ordeal, they labeled her “promiscuous” and “feeble-minded.”  She was sterilized without her consent or knowledge right after her son was born.  Her rapist was never brought to justice.  Her story is not uncommon for the tens of thousands of people sterilized in the name of public health over the decades.  More information about her and about North Carolina’s shameful history can be found here.

We have to remember that choice is more than about the right to pregnancy prevention and abortion.  For so many people it is just the opposite.  Everyone deserves to make the best decisions for themselves with all the facts given to them in a medically accurate, unbiased way.   Forcing someone to be sterilized is just as bad as forcing them to be pregnant.

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