Opinion: Carolina Beat

CJ Editorial: Must Eugenics Victims Keep Waiting?

The following editorial appeared in the June 2013 print edition of Carolina Journal:

At long last, it seemed, North Carolina state government seemed poised to address one of the most shameful policies in North Carolina history: the eugenics program, which sterilized thousands of North Carolinians who were considered by state officials to be unfit to have children.

Pat McCrory campaigned in favor of compensating living victims of the state’s forced sterilization program during his successful 2012 run for governor. His budget proposal included $10 million for that purpose.

House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, has made compensation a priority since he rose to the top spot in the House two years ago — and during the 2011-12 session of the General Assembly, the House passed a measure with a bipartisan 86-31 margin offering modest compensation of $50,000 to every living victim of the sterilization program.

But opposition in the Senate killed that proposal, and resistance remains to this year’s version. The Senate budget proposal introduced in May does not include funding for eugenics victims, and Senate leaders consider the matter settled.

It shouldn’t be. By no means would a $50,000 cash payment serve as full restitution for the indignities our state government imposed on the several hundred victims still living. It would be more meaningful than the apology Gov. Mike Easley offered them nearly a decade ago, and it would acknowledge, in a tangible way, that for decades an official policy of North Carolina was a moral outrage.

A task force created by former Gov. Bev Perdue estimated that more than 7,500 North Carolinians were sterilized between 1929 and 1974 under a 1929 law “to Provide For the Sterilization of the Mentally Defective and Feeble-Minded Inmates of Charitable and Penal Institutions of the State of North Carolina.” Though most states with eugenics statutes wound down their programs after World War II, North Carolina’s sterilizations accelerated. And in the program’s latter years, blacks were sterilized at disproportionately higher rates than whites.

North Carolina formed a Eugenics Board in 1933 that authorized forced sterilizations “for the public good.” Penal institutions and mental hospitals asked the board to authorize the sterilization of individuals; if the individuals did not grant consent, officials would seek to get it from relatives, spouses, or guardians. The final eugenics-related sterilization was in 1974.

Some Senate Republicans argue that it’s not their job to aid eugenics victims because the program took place when Democrats dominated state government, and previous Democrat-run legislatures refused to take responsibility when they were in charge. Others note that tight fiscal times require discipline from policymakers, and they see compensation for victims as a new program the state cannot afford.

We don’t care why the legislature failed to be accountable for this official injustice. It’s possible the final House budget will include funding for compensation. We hope so, and as negotiations proceed, we would urge the Senate to set aside trivial concerns and begin to close this ugly chapter of our state’s history.