For many Americans, it's hard to believe the United States ever practiced eugenics. But between 1907 and the 1970s, 33 states sterilized more than 60,000 people, sometimes with consent and sometimes by force, as part of a massive social engineering effort. Many of the victims, but not all, lived in mental or correctional institutions.
States have repudiated the practice today. Last week, North Carolina became the first to provide financial compensation to sterilization victims when Gov. Pat McCrory signed a budget that included $10 million for payouts to victims. The fund will begin dispersing money in June 2015.
A handful of other states have offered formal apologies for sterilization programs that ended decades ago. California apologized in 2003, although a report earlier this month indicated doctors are still performing tubal ligations on female prison inmates, sometimes with disregard for state regulations.
Sterilization of men and women, a new surgical procedure in the early 20th century, was part of a widespread movement at the time to prevent the disabled, the mentally handicapped, or the “feebleminded” from bearing children. The movement had roots in Darwinism and a mistaken scientific assumption that mental illnesses and capacity for intelligence were passed on from parents to children.
“Eugenical sterilization is a means adopted by organized Society to do for the human race in a humane manner what was done by Nature before modern civilization, human sympathy, and charity intervened in Nature’s plans,” read a 1935 booklet called Eugenical Sterilization in North Carolina. It was written by R. Eugene Brown, the secretary of the state’s defunct Eugenics Board.
Appealing to the “ancient law” of “survival of the fittest,” the booklet justified North Carolina law promoting the sterilization of “any mentally diseased, feebleminded or epileptic resident.” By providing welfare to such people and allowing them to reproduce, society allowed the propagation of “undesirable human stocks,” the booklet argued, echoing the thinking of eugenics advocates of the day. It even upheld Germany’s sterilization law as a model for the types of conditions justifying sterilization, including “hereditary feeblemindedness.”
“Feebleminded” referred to people who appeared to have a mental handicap. In practice, it was a flexible label that a health expert could apply to anyone he deemed uneducated or unintelligent, or to someone with a learning disability. In many cases, the “feebleminded” could read, write, and work like normal people.
Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was a leading proponent of eugenics. She complained that society was weighed down by the “unfit,” who she called “human waste.”
“Today eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems,” Sanger wrote in 1921. “The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”
Indiana had the ignoble distinction of enacting the first forced sterilization law in 1907. Other states followed suit soon after. World War II dealt a major blow to the eugenics movement after Americans saw atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. In addition to murdering Jews, the Nazis killed the handicapped as part of a eugenics effort to purify the German race.
However, American states continued sterilizations even after the war. In North Carolina the practice accelerated: A cartoon-illustrated promotional pamphlet asserted in 1950, “You wouldn’t expect a moron [a mentally handicapped person] to run a train. Or a feebleminded woman to teach school. … Yet each day the feebleminded and the mentally defective are entrusted with the most important and far-reaching job of all … the job of parenthood!” It was published by the Human Betterment League of North Carolina.
The health experts of the 1930s estimated 40 percent of inmates at North Carolina penal and correctional institutions were “feebleminded” and in need of sterilization. From 1929 to 1974, North Carolina sterilized 7,600 people, some as young as 10. Most of the victims were women and girls. In the 1960s the program disproportionately targeted African Americans, who made up 60 percent of victims, but only 25 percent of the state population.
Elaine Riddick was one of the African-American victims. She became pregnant at 13 after being raped by a neighbor, and when health workers delivered her baby, they took the opportunity to sterilize her. Her illiterate grandmother was told she would lose her welfare benefits—food—if she didn’t sign the consent form. Riddick didn’t learn of the operation until she was 19.
“I asked the state of North Carolina why they did this to me, and they said that because I was feebleminded that I would not be able to take care of myself—I would not be able to tie my shoes—that I was just incompetent,” she said in Maafa 21, a documentary produced by Life Dynamics.
North Carolina established the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation to compensate victims such as Riddick. The new $10 million fund will be divided among the total number of victims who are still living. So far, only 177 living victims have been verified, which would mean a payout of over $56,000 per person.
The state has estimated nearly 2,000 victims of the program were alive in 2012. They have until June 2014 to come forward and claim compensation.