June 6, 2012; Source: Charlotte Observer

In this nation’s laggard, halting efforts to provide some remedies to people who have been wronged by society, this North Carolina story regarding eugenics is particularly telling, with a result that may be moving toward some compensation for the victims of this heinous practice. The NPQ Newswire has covered the eugenics controversy in the past, noting that a national foundation or two was tacitly or directly involved in supporting or promoting the state’s eugenics agenda.

Admittedly, the crimes of state-sanctioned eugenics were a long time ago. In North Carolina, the program began in the 1930s, but shockingly lasted until 1974. The current overseers of the foundations and others that were involved in one way or another in the eugenics programs don’t do much to acknowledge their sorry roles in this dynamic, which is unfortunate. The Charlotte Observer described the program succinctly: “The state passed a eugenics law in 1929 and from 1933 to 1974, a board created by the legislature ordered that ‘mentally diseased, feeble-minded or epileptic’ people be sterilized. The board also ordered steriliz[ation of] people who were poor or who were thought likely to have disabled children.”

The N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation says, even more shockingly, that “70 percent of the Eugenics Board-approved sterilizations in North Carolina occurred after World War II.” Some 7,600 people were sterilized under the program, the Foundation estimates. 1,500 to 2,000 may still be alive, but the state has verified only 118 living victims. As the NPQ Newswire noted, a large proportion of the victims of this policy were African American.

Earlier this week, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed a bill to create an Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims that would administer a $10 million fund (WWAY-TV says that the fund will be $11 million) that would pay sterilization victims who were alive as of May 16, 2012 compensation of $50,000. The House changed the eligibility date for victims from the original March 2010, meaning that the families of people who died in the intervening two years lose out, but fended off an amendment to reduce the compensation amount to $20,000 per victim. That amendment was offered by Rep. John Blust (R-N.C.), who thought the lower number was more appropriate in light of the state’s budget crisis, but still “enough money that the state says you were wronged.”

The legislation, however, was promoted strongly by Republicans. State Speaker of the House Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) took the unusual step of giving up the gavel in order to participate in the debate, speaking forcefully in favor of the legislation: “There are people living today, all around this community, who have had this done to them and we have a chance to put it at rest,” Tillis said. House Majority Leader Paul Stam, another Republican, added, “We owe it to them. Not in a legal sense, but a moral sense.”

Let’s see if the North Carolina Senate follows the lead of its lower chamber. But we would also like to see statements of some sort from the foundations that were involved in this sorry history. What do they have to say about the victims of a policy that their institutions had some role in some decades ago?—Rick Cohen