RALEIGH, N.C. — There is nothing the state of North Carolina can do, Elaine Riddick says, to make up for forcing her to be sterilized when she was 14 years old.
“They cut me open like I was a hog,” the woman who now lives in Atlanta said at a Wednesday hearing in Raleigh held by a panel working to determine compensation for thousands of victims of the state’s defunct eugenics program. “My heart bleeds every single day. I’m crushed. What can they do for me?”
Riddick, 57, was one of 13 people who spoke at the meeting, and one of nearly 3,000 living victims of the program, which was shuttered in 1977, three years after the last sterilization was performed. The public hearing is part of a process unprecedented not just in North Carolina, but nationally. About a half dozen other states have joined North Carolina in apologizing for past eugenics programs, but none of the others have put together a plan to compensate victims of involuntary sterilization.
“It’s hard for me to accept or understand or even try to figure out why these kinds of atrocious acts could be carried out in this country,” said Gov. Beverly Perdue, who appointed the Eugenics Task Force that convened Wednesday’s hearing.
Nationwide, there were more than 60,000 known victims of sterilization programs, with perhaps another 40,000 sterilized through “unofficial” channels like hospitals or local health departments working on their own initiative. Eugenics was aimed at creating a better society by filtering out people considered undesirable, ranging from criminals to those imprecisely designated as “feeble-minded.”
People as young as 10 in North Carolina were sterilized for not getting along with schoolmates, being promiscuous or running afoul of local social workers or doctors. The state’s law, which allowed such professionals to refer people to the state Eugenics Board for sterilization, was more open-ended than similar statutes in other states, where people had to be jailed or institutionalized before they could be sterilized.
“Where did all this come from? This came from doctors, medical practitioners, professors, not guys in pickup trucks wearing white sheets,” said Edwin Black, author of the eugenics history “War Against the Weak.”
Any plan that involves financial compensation will be a hard sell, though, in a year when the state budget includes deep cuts to numerous programs. The General Assembly passed the $19.7 billion spending plan over Perdue’s veto. Bills in the legislature aimed at providing specific financial and medical compensation for victims have stalled.
“We’ve made some baby steps, but as we get closer to the big one, there’s some pushback,” said state Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, the lawmaker who’s been most active on the issue.
Womble initially sought payments of $50,000 for each victim, but said the state Industrial Commission, which pays claims from lawsuits and other matters, suggested $20,000 as a more realistic figure. The task force hasn’t yet settled on an amount or type of compensation to recommend. It’s scheduled to send a draft report to Perdue by Aug. 1.
The possibility that the state would only offer symbolic or low-stakes compensation rankled some victims and their family members.
“It’s still being said to my mother 47 years later,” said Deborah Chesson, whose mother was sterilized in the 1960s after giving birth, and who was too ill to travel to the hearing. “You are still saying that she means nothing.”
Some victims expressed a raw anger that hasn’t lessened over the decades, while others voiced regret that a procedure done to them as adolescents shaped the rest of their lives.
“That’s the only thing I hated about being operated on, ’cause I couldn’t have kids,” said Willis Lynch, 77, who was sterilized at 14. “It’s always been in the back of my mind.”
Lela Dunston was sterilized after giving birth to a son at 13. She wanted to have daughters one day, and mourns her inability to have children with her husband.
“They did away with me,” she said. “I can’t have no babies.”
About 7,600 people were sterilized under North Carolina’s eugenics program. Roughly 85 percent of the victims were women or girls. Unlike most states, North Carolina ramped up its sterilizations after World War II, despite associations between eugenics and Nazi Germany, which took eugenics to even more horrifying lengths. Around 70 percent of all North Carolina’s sterilizations were performed after the war, peaking in the 1950s, according to state records.
In 2002, then-Gov. Mike Easley formally apologized for the program.
Victims who spoke at the hearing said they were glad the process that began with Easley’s apology has enabled them to learn they weren’t alone.
“I thank God I’m still alive so I could get up here and tell this story,” Dunston said. “They did this to me.”
Black said financial compensation alone won’t address the scope of the wrongdoing. He said states where sterilization took place should also make additions to school curricula and erect public monuments to acknowledge what happened.
“You can’t just write a check, you have to right the wrong,” he said.