Last year one of the most prolific forces in American compulsory sterilization passed a law paying out compensation to those still living with the tragic legacy of the practice. North Carolina sterilized some 7,000 people between 1929 and 1976, with an estimated 3,000 individuals still alive and able to claim $20,000 in reparations offered by the legislation.
Debra Blackmon (left) was sterilized by court order in 1972, at age 14. With help from her niece, Latoya Adams (right), she’s fighting to be included in the state’s compensation program. Eric Mennel/WUNC
This week NPR is reporting that hundreds of people who were forced to undergo the procedure in the state may not ever be compensated because of a technicality. According to the law the sterilization had to have been officially approved by the state’s Eugenics Board. However, many individuals were targeted at the local level by judges or social workers who cited state law but didn’t get official approval for their decisions.
A spokesman for the state when asked if NC is responsible for these individuals responded, “That’s kind of hard to say. Again, it’s just an unfortunate part of our history. It’s just something that was done. So it’s kind of hard to say that the state would be responsible when it was just kind of an accepted practice.”
To say that the state isn’t responsible for creating a legal framework in which individuals in power were able to sterilize those they saw as “unfit” is deeply misguided. This kind of obfuscation is doubly offensive because of the way in which eugenic sterilizations were often done without the knowledge of the victim, and thus eliminated the ability to appeal the decision to the Eugenics Board. If NC and its elected officials were truly committed to justice they would take full responsibility and make sure no victim of compulsory sterilization was manipulated out of their deserved compensation by the very bureaucracy that once so callously abused them.
You can find NPR’s full report here.