Jun 20, 2011

Margaret Helen Cheek (far left in photo) was sterilized during North Carolina's eugenics program at Cherry Hospital. (AP)

 
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Nearly 35 years after ending the country's most active post-war sterilization program, North Carolina is the only state trying to make amends to thousands of people who cannot have children because of eugenics-inspired theories about social improvement.

Next week, victims and their relatives will tell their stories to a state task force considering compensation to victims of sterilizations that continued into 1974. Roughly 85 percent of victims were women or girls, some as young as 10. North Carolina has more victims living than any other state because a majority was sterilized after World War II, said Charmaine Fuller Cooper, director of the state Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation.

Eugenics programs gained popularity in the U.S. and other countries in the early 1900s, but most abandoned those efforts after World War II because of the association with Nazi Germany's program aimed at racial purity. However, North Carolina's expanded, with sterilizations peaking in the 1950s and early 1960s. About 70 percent of the state's 7,600 sterilizations occurred after the war, state figures show.

Overt rationalization for the programs ranged from protecting the potential offspring of mentally disabled parents to improving the overall health and intellectual competence of the human race. Before the atrocities of World War II, it was seen by many — both blacks and whites — as a legitimate effort to improve society.

"Sterilization was always a cost-cutting measure," said Paul Lombardo, a professor at Georgia State University's College of Law. "The argument was, anybody who generates social costs shouldn't be allowed to have children."

In 1968, Elaine Riddick was like many others who were sterilized: poor, black and female.

Now living in Atlanta, Riddick plans to drive to Raleigh next week to tell the task force about her sterilization at age 14 following a rape. She said her grandmother gave the state permission for the procedure.

"My grandmother was worried about me. I didn't blame her," Riddick said.

Yet she said it was a traumatic experience that led to years of depression and physical problems. Riddick wants financial compensation from the state to pay for doctor bills and medicine.

Researchers estimate more than 60,000 people nationwide were sterilized during the 20th century as part of government programs. Even in states without sterilization laws, the procedures still occurred on local or informal levels. That means the real number could be 100,000 or higher, Lombardo said.

Among the 33 states with eugenics programs, North Carolina's was unique. The state had the most open-ended law in the country, allowing doctors and social workers to refer people living at home to the state Eugenics Board for possible sterilization. In every other state, Lombardo said, people had to be either institutionalized or jailed before they could be sterilized.
 
 

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