June 20, 2011; Source: Businessweek | Victims and their families who suffered from sterilizations during a sordid chapter in North Carolina's history are about to get some closure as the state weighs whether to make compensation payments. But in trying to determine how North Carolina continued this program long after it ended elsewhere in the country, a large share of the blame seems to rest on a defunct nonprofit.
According to the Associated Press, sterilizations began declining nationwide after World War II "because of the association with Nazi Germany's program aimed at racial purity." But in North Carolina, they averaged about 300 per year between 1950 and 1963. AP writes that "the most obvious explanation is the influence of the Winston-Salem-based Human Betterment League," whose members were "wealthy and prominent citizens, including textile magnate James Hanes."
According to Charmaine Fuller Cooper, director of the state Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, a task force considering compensation to victims of sterilization, a practice that continued into 1974, said the nonprofit Betterment League was successful at influencing state policy. AP reports that the group, which folded in 1988, had in earlier years promoted sterilization "through direct mail campaigns and other methods."
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For example, a brochure from the 1950s reads in part: "You wouldn't give a responsible position to a person of little intelligence. 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." Next week, some of the 2,944 sterilization victims who are still alive will appear before the task force which will decide on whether to offer compensation. While at least seven other states have apologized for their past sterilization programs, North Carolina, which holds the dubious record for the most sterilizations in the nation, is also the only state to consider offering payment to victims.
It's not clear yet if family members might also be eligible for possible payments or other types of assistance. As AP notes, "With the state legislature struggling to close a budget gap, questions of fairness may be pushed aside by simple economics."—Bruce Trachtenberg