Fox News reported on Saturday that North Carolina lawmakers have finally approved a $10 million fund to compensate victims who underwent forced sterilization in the state’s eugenics program, which was among the most extensive and long-running of its kind.
Between 1929 and 1976, North Carolina sterilized 7,600 people, some as young as 10 years old, who were deemed mentally ill or socially unfit. Almost all the victims were sterilized by force or gave their consent without fully understanding the consequences.
The compensation fund will begin paying out in July 2015. So far, only 177 living victims have been identified. The amount of compensation each will receive depends on the number of verified claims, according to the state Department of Administration.
“No amount that we can afford to pay is enough,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Stam, a Republican. “But this is sufficient for the living victims to know that the state of North Carolina sincerely regrets the injustice that we’ve done to them.”
Forced sterilization starts in the U.S.
Forced sterilization is usually associated with Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and the belief that a pure “Aryan” race could be achieved by cleansing the gene pool. Nazi propaganda defended Germany’s forced sterilization program by citing the United States as an ally in the eugenic movement, and its laws as proof of its status in the matter.
Sadly, Germany was correct in saying Americans were being sterilized, most often against their will. As far back as 1897, Michigan became the first state to attempt to pass a forced sterilization law, but it was vetoed by the governor.
It wasn’t until 1907 that forced sterilization legislation was successfully passed into law. The state of Indiana can lay claim to being the first state to pass a law that would sterilize the “feeble-minded” (mentally handicapped). Compulsory laws were eventually adopted in over 30 states. This led to more than 60,000 sterilizations of disabled individuals nationwide.
Sterilization in Virginia occurred under state law between 1924 and 1979. The state apparently continued with these forced sterilizations longer than any other state. A total of around 7,325 individuals were sterilized, with about half being deemed “mentally ill” and the other half deemed “mentally deficient.” Some estimate the total number of sterilizations could be as high as 8,300 people.
America’s shameful history
While people today would cringe at the inhumanity of forcing anyone to undergo sterilization because they are mentally challenged, we allowed our lawmakers to pass laws that did just that very thing. Those laws were challenged in 1927, and were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Oliver Wendall Holmes, writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s 1927 Buck v. Bell wrote the following:
“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.”
Thankfully, the highest court in the land did an about-face on the subject of eugenics laws in 1981. In the case of Poe v. Lynchburg Training Hospital in 1981, it ruled that no one has the constitutional right to force someone to be sterilized.
As we have seen by the news today, the spectre of those inhumane sterilization laws still hang over our heads, and will continue to prickle our collective consciousness. We must never allow any governing body to make laws infringing on a persons reproduction rights ever again.