Justice for N.C. Sterilization Victims

Normally, when we think of Eugenics, we think of Nazi Germany. What many people may not know is that Eugenics was a phenomena that started in the United States in the early twentieth century. Eugenics is a concept that refers to the “intentional and selective breeding of humans or animals” with traits that are deemed desirable by people who promote this practice.[1] People who didn’t posses “desirable traits” were encouraged (threaten) and forced to into sterilization to prevent passing on these traits to future generations.

The first laws on sterilization based on the principles of Eugenics were established in 1907 in Indiana. From the 1920s to the 1970s, public officials, nurses, social workers, and more contributed to the sterilization more than 60,000 individuals in the United States who were deemed unfit.[2] Those were deemed unfit including people with disabilities, impoverished individuals, victims of rape and incest, orphans and more, were considered to be undesirable as they were allegedly carrying undesirable traits.[3]

Even those who were not considered to be noticeably “undesirable” where given forced sterilization procedure by association. This can be seen in the movie Tomorrow’s Children (1934) when the main female character, Alice Mason, who is portrayed as a normal, hardworking girl, gets recommended for sterilization because her family history of alcohol abuse, even though she herself, is not an alcoholic. Carrie Buck, a real life victim of Virginia’s sterilization laws, was sterilized because she was accused in court of being not intelligent and sexually promiscuous, and that these traits were passed down to her from her mother. Even Carrie’s child, who was examined by a sociologist, was considered to below average and not quite normal.[4]  It was found out later Carrie Buck’s diagnosis was falsified and other details of Carrie Buck’s life were made up to make sure she was sterilized in the end.

Many victims of forced sterilization, such as Charles Holt of North Carolina, have come forward and shared their story. Charles Holt was only nineteen years old, living in an institution for boys in Butner, NC when he was sent to the hospital and given a vasectomy without his consent or knowledge. Today there is some justice for Mr. Holt, as North Carolina prepares to offer compensation to victims of sterilization in the near future. While many states have apologized for their role in the sterilization of hundred of thousands of Americans, as of 2013, North Carolina is the only state to offer retribution in the form of money to victims of sterilization through the Eugenics Asexualization and Sterilization Compensation Program. The program allows victims to file a claim with the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims. If their name and patient file is found, the claimant will be paid a part of the $10 million that has been set aside for victims of sterilization. Payments for the eligible victims in North Carolina, will begin in 2015.[5]


[1] N.C. Department of Administration. N.C. Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims. Pamplet. Raleigh, North Carolina: December 2013.

[2] Elizabeth Cohen, “North Carolina OK Payments for Victims of Forced Sterlization.” [http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/26/us/north-carolina-sterilization-payments/] July 28, 1013.

[3] Paul Lombardo, “Eugenics Sterilization Laws” in “Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement” [http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay8text.html], Accessed on Feb 25, 2014.

[4] Paul Lombardo, “Eugenics Sterilization Laws” in “Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement” [http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay8text.html], Accessed on Feb 25, 2014.

[5] Elizabeth Cohen, “North Carolina OK Payments for Victims of Forced Sterlization.” [http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/26/us/north-carolina-sterilization-payments/] July 28, 1013.

18 thoughts on “Justice for N.C. Sterilization Victims

  1. Jeanette your post was really interesting. But it made me consider if the financial restitution made by North Carolina makes up for their part in forced sterilization. One the one hand, North Carolina is attempting to make up for their role in the eugenics movement which is commendable. On the other hand, no amount of money will ever be able to undo or fix the emotional and physical pain the state inflicted. Needless to say I am torn about North Carolina’s choice.

    1. I think it’s good that North Carolina is acknowledging their part in eugenics when so many other states aren’t; but I agree, what good will money do now? It almost seems like a publicity ploy.

    2. Apparently the fight is taking place in Virginia now as well, though the state is currently leaning towards a formal apology, and saying that there is no money for financial reparations. I’ll post a link to the story below. Anyway, like you, I’m conflicted about restitution in this situation, but I think that a formal apology is a good place to start.

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/people-sterilized-under-infamous-virginia-law-renew-effort-to-obtain-reparations/2013/12/08/10f0bc30-5c8a-11e3-bc56-c6ca94801fac_story.html

      1. I do tend to think that while it is a step in the right direction, offering $50,000 in exchange for such an injustice just doesn’t seem to sit right. In the article Drew posted, a State Congressional Delegate was quoted as saying: “If you did a moral wrong, you have to do a moral right.” Somehow offering money to me doesn’t exactly make a “moral right.” I think it is sad that they have not already offered a formal apology, with or without the money. As Megan points out, the most clear positive of the case in North Carolina is that the wrong was admitted in the first place. While no compensation will ever make up for the wrong, the least these people deserve is to hear is that their suffering is recognized and an acknowledgment of the injustice.

    3. I was really struck by that idea too! The forced sterilization not only inflicted emotional and physical pain, but it also denied people the opportunity for family, which I can’t even imagine. How does money make up for robbing a family of generations?

      1. I had a thought. What if, instead of offering monetary compensation, the state took measures to help these people adopt a child (if they chose to do so?) What if they aided these victims trying to start families by dropping state fees related to child adoption. It would immediately address the family generations issue.

    4. I agree, Michelle, that money cannot fix the problem. At the same time, what has been done cannot be undone. While the parallel is not perfect, I am reminded of veteran’s benefits. Many veterans return from duty with medical issues that seriously impact the rest of their lives. Yet, the government takes financial responsibility for this, in theory. (My dad was a veteran so I am a little suspect about the system, but that is a different story.) Then I wonder if the government is even the one to be held responsible. I don’t remember any direct references to the doctors or clinics who carried out these treatments? Who sought out who was to be sterilized? Who are the other actors at play here? I need to learn more about how these sterilizations were carried out and the relationship between those involved before I would feel comfortable formulating an opinion. I only have questions at this point.

  2. “It was found out later Carrie Buck’s diagnosis was falsified and other details of Carrie Buck’s life were made up to make sure she was sterilized in the end.”

    This shows that there was more than a really screwed up ideology going on–pride also factored into Buck’s sterilization. The authorities decided that she needed to be sterilized, and they were willing to lie to make it happen. Even with all of the faulty evidence eugenicists already had for sterilizing people, they still had to consciously lie to get their way. This shows what happens when you give people too much power over someone else’s life.

  3. As cynical as it sounds, all I can think is what else is there to do? Yes, an apology is nice and part of the healing process. Sure, money doesn’t make up for the potential life that was lost but maybe the money given would afford some an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise. It sounds almost cheap when phrased that way but I feel like something else should be done other than an apology if possible. I wonder what the people who experienced this injustice think about financial restitution? Perhaps it would be better to throw funding into education and outreach efforts about this past and why it is still relevant today. That would show a real commitment in trying to prevent something like this from happening again and acknowledging the wrong of the past.

    1. That’s a good thought, Emily. I think it would be useful to get input from the people who suffered from the eugenics movement before settling on financial restitution. Maybe some sort of financial restitution, plus funding for exhibits and outreach would be a better way to apologize to the victims. I think the important thing is the commitment to educate the public and by so doing prevent future injustices of this nature.

    2. Yeah, I was reminded of the “Exhibiting Eugenics” article that mentioned how public apologies such as California Governor Davis’ were met with cynicism from scholars and the media. I never even considered how this well-intentioned gesture could threaten further exploration into the legacy of eugenics in the U.S.

    3. I think that putting the money towards education or public outreach might be a better way to deal with monetary restitution. Or what about creating a scientific advisory board to look at the ethical implications of genetic testing in a public sphere and in a way that the general public could engage with. I think what most people would want is a public apology of wrong doing that the acknowledgement and promises to do better and for the state to do more than hand out money. To me by tying money to the apology feels bit like money can buy the state out of an embarrassing situation.

  4. I am also somewhat torn about the situation, but I agree with Emily that using the money in a different way would be a better apology. It would have been interesting if North Carolina asked victims about ways to apologize for the wrong, since victim opinions hold a considerable amount of weight in this situation. Education and outreach on the topic is more likely to have a lasting impact than an apology and restitution, since ongoing education does not fade from public memory like a single statement at a specific time does. The current apology is certainly better than what other states are (not) doing, but it serves to isolate the wrongs as a component of the past instead of preventing the terrible practice from being forgotten or re-evaluated in the future.

  5. I think the best apology you can offer is to make sure this ideology is irradiated from public discourse. Unfortunately, these attitudes and bigotry towards people considered to be undesirable are still prevalent today.

  6. If people who were victims of eugenics are being allowed some kind of retribution/compensation for being involved, shouldn’t African-Americans also be compensated in some way, if proof can be shown, for their ancestors’ being forced to work against their will? I do not know if there can be a proper apology.

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