At the end of this month, North Carolina must start making payments to some of the thousands of people the state forcibly sterilized between 1929 and the late 1970s. The state approved a $10 million compensation fund last year for victims of its longtime eugenics-based policy, which aimed to prevent certain citizens from reproducing.
North Carolina is the only US state to pass legislation setting aside money for sterilization victims — but it's not the only state that forced sterilization upon its citizens. More than 30 did during the 20th Century, when eugenics was championed as a way to improve society through selective reproduction.
The North Carolina law is not without controversy, since it offers compensation to only a fraction of the people in the state who claim they were forcibly sterilized.
In all, more than 60,000 people across the US were forcibly sterilized between 1907 and the late 1970s, said Lutz Kaelber, a sociologist at the University of Vermont who has done extensive research on eugenics. Those sterilized included people committed to mental institutions, impregnated underage, convicted of certain crimes, and considered to be mentally inferior.
No other state has offered compensation to victims of state-sponsored sterilizations, nor are they considering any such legislation.
"North Carolina is the first state to try to do the reparations," Kaelber told VICE News. "Prior to the North Carolina decision, not a single person had been paid a single cent in reparations for sterilizations."
The first state-sanctioned sterilization laws were passed in Indiana in 1907. At that time, many people believed that certain traits and behavior — criminality, a propensity for poverty, mental illness — were passed from parents to children. (Eugenics had only a passing relationship with actual genetics.) Eugenicists argued that society would be improved by preventing these people from reproducing.
Doctors in the US first began employing eugenics at mental institutions, where patients would face sterilization as a condition of release. These procedures were eventually stopped because of a lack of due process for the victims — and because Americans became aware of similar procedures done at the hands of Nazi doctors, who were influenced by US practices.
Also, science had progressed and evidence wasn't supporting the belief that perceived negative traits were always passed down the generations. "They found some families that have members that have problems with crime and poverty also have very successful members," Kaelber said.
Stepping away from sterilizations at the institutions, US policy evolved to what is known as return eugenics, which took into consideration whether an individual was capable of caring for a child, rather than attempting to prevent undesirable traits from being passed down. If a person was thought to be an unfit parent — teenage girls, underage criminals, the mentally disabled — they could be sterilized.
Return eugenics came to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s, Kaelber said, adding that this policy remained in place until eugenics policies eventually were abandoned by all states, the last doing so in the late 1970s.
California sterilized more than 20,000 people, the most of any state. North Carolina sterilized more than 7,600.
The law has two controversial stipulations determining who is able to claim compensation: victims must provide state documentation of their sterilization, and they must have been alive on June 30, 2013. This ruled out the families of many of the victims, who died before the law went into effect.
The documentation clause has also contributed to the fact that about two-thirds of the people who have applied for compensation have been denied, said Elizabeth Haddix, senior staff attorney with the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights. Of the 731 requests for compensation made in the state, only 213 have been approved.
Graham Wilson, spokesman for the state Commerce Department, told the AP that victims are being denied primarily because they don't have paperwork from the state Eugenics Board, or because they were technically sterilized by a county rather than the state. North Carolina officials did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment.
Haddix and Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, are representing 40 victims who have been denied compensation for their sterilizations.
"The compensation program has been set up in such a way and the restriction built into the program such that it excludes a large swath of the victims state sterilization program," Dorosin said on WFAE, a NC NPR affiliate. "The compensation program is set up in such a way that requires one that there be a specific record in the state eugenics board that the victims were sterilized pursuant to the state eugenics board's authority. What we found in representing victims is that there are hundreds of folks who were sterilized by county boards of social services, by county boards of public health all acting under the authority of the state eugenics board."
Dorosin said many of his clients didn't realize the state had no record of their sterilizations until they were rejected. The 7,600 victims in North Carolina encompass those whose records were kept by the state; Haddix said she thinks the total number of sterilizations done there is well over 20,000.
Haddix and Dorosin have appealed their clients' rejections, which will be reconsidered by a three-person panel within the next month. Haddix says she hopes the panel will use a broader interpretation of the law and include the denied victims without the need for additional legislation. All of her clients have some form of documentation of their sterilization, she said.
If the panel doesn't overturn the decision, Haddix said she will take the case to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Even with the flaws of the NC compensation law, Kaelber said he sees it as a positive sign that the state is offering compensation at all, since no other state has taken that step. Regardless of what happens with the NC payments, 29 states remain that have offered no compensation whatsoever.
"North Carolina is the only state actively pursuing this," Kaelber said. "Virginia talked about it, but the idea never took off. It's difficult to evaluate, there might be a lot of pressure to offer payment once North Carolina starts."
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