Opinion: Daily Journal

Don’t Let Technicality Block Eugenics Compensation

An important deadline for compensating victims of North Carolina’s forced-sterilization program may pass with very few victims qualifying. That isn’t good news.

From an Associated Press report, it seems as if victims may be disqualified for compensation owing to a legal technicality — that they were sterilized on orders by county, not state, authorities.

From the AP:

As of Sept. 30, the N.C. Industrial Commission had approved 213 claims for compensation of the 731 claims reviewed, or about 30 percent. The Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims has received another 55 claims that the commission hasn’t yet reviewed under the state law, approved in July 2013.

Major reasons for denials — which victims can appeal — include missing paperwork and a determination someone wasn’t sterilized on orders of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina but on orders issued at the county level, said Graham Wilson, spokesman for the state Commerce Department. That department oversees the industrial commission tasked with approving claims.

North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 people whom the state deemed feeble-minded or otherwise undesirable between 1929 and 1974. Wilson noted that compensation is allowed only for those sterilized under orders of the state eugenics board.

“It’s the way the statute is written,” Wilson said. “If counties took it upon themselves to do it under their authority, they do not qualify.” Victims can appeal, he said, “but if the documents show the procedure wasn’t done under the state authority, they really don’t have any case in this process.”

The spokesman is correct; that is how the statute is written. The budget bill of 2013, which included the compensation, defines a “Qualified recipient” as “An individual who was asexualized involuntarily or sterilized involuntarily under the authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina in accordance with Chapter 224 of the Public Laws of 1933 or Chapter 221 of the Public Laws of 1937.”

But if ever there were an instance of violating the spirit of a law by abiding by the strict letter of the law, it is here. Counties get their authority from the state. A much broader reading of the statute is morally warranted.

Involuntary sterilization — the AP noted that some victims were “as young as 10 and chosen because they were promiscuous or did not get along with their schoolmates” — was a serious harm inflicted by the state against its citizens. Providing some remedy, however late, to actual victims should not hinge on whether the hideous government order originated from the state eugenics board directly or from county officials operating under their wrongheaded example.

Not that much is improved by disqualification by “missing paperwork.” Victims were not chosen out of respect for their organizational skills, after all. While there should be some benchmarks for establishing proof of victimhood, it would seem reasonable to expect that a person having the same name as a recorded sterilization victim, having some evidence to show himself as being that victim, and being in fact sterilized would be enough.

A moral failing by all three branches of government

North Carolina’s forced-sterilization program spanned five decades, from 1929 to 1977. It was steeped in the eugenics fascination promoted by “Progressives.” They sought to further human evolution by preventing “undesirables” from reproducing, leaving reproduction to “desirable” members of society.

If that sounds like something out of Nazi Germany, it was. But while the Nazis’ eugenicism exposed its true nature and made it ultimately untenable, eugenicism was a widespread idea throughout the United States, as well. North Carolina was joined by 30 other states with eugenics programs.

North Carolina’s forced-sterilization program actually began before the Nazis’, and it lasted longer — in fact, over three-fourths of the approximately 7,600 victims were sterilized after 1945. As my friend and former colleague Daren Bakst showed, North Carolina’s eugenics program represented a complete failure by all three branches of government to protect its citizens:

  • Approved by the legislature
  • Implemented by the executive branch
  • Deemed constitutional by the judiciary (recall the ruling in In Re Moore of 1976 that declared it the legislature’s “duty” — its duty! — to enact sterilization laws and “limit a class of citizens in its right to bear or beget children with an inherited tendency to mental deficiency, including feeblemindedness, idiocy, or imbecility,” so as to “protect the public and preserve the race from the known effects of the procreation”)

North Carolina’s leaders and progressive elite were convinced the program was a great benefit to the state and to its involuntarily sterilized “lucky morons.” The term is borrowed from the title of a poem by Dr. Charles Gamble, a prominent member of the Human Betterment League of North Carolina. The poem is illustrative, infused as it is with the boasting and aseptic tidiness of its Progressive, state-makes-great beliefs. It concludes:

… And there weren’t any children’s
mouths to feed — although
they wouldn’t have
known why if
the operation hadn’t
been explained to them.
And with just the two in the
Family, they kept on
being SELF SUPPORTING,
and they were very thankful they lived
in NORTH CAROLINA.
And the WELFARE DEPARTMENT
DIDN’T have to feed them
and the SCHOOLS didn’t
have to waste their efforts on
any of their children who weren’t very bright.
And because they had been
STERILIZED, the taxpayers of
North Carolina had
saved
THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS
and the North Carolina MORONS LIVED
HAPPILY EVER AFTER.

With its forced sterilization program, the State of North Carolina was obviously and morally in the wrong. So it was right and proper for the General Assembly finally to address that wrong through establishing this compensation program.

It would be a shame — not to mention shabby and inexplicably petty — to deny the clear intent of the program through an overly rigid interpretation of the statute.

Jon Sanders (@jonpsanders) is Director of Regulatory Studies for the John Locke Foundation.