It seems unfathomable that North Carolina once had a program that called for the forcible sterilization of people who were considered “feeble-minded,” mostly epileptics, the mentally handicapped and poor black women.
This week, a special task force put a price on that government-sanctioned abomination — $50,000 for each person who was sterilized, a figure that could add up to as much as $100 million for the state. The good bet is that money will be paid someday, although some victims believe a larger settlement is warranted. Anyone who would argue otherwise would be on shaky ground.
The eugenics programs were popular in North Carolina and more than 30 other states — and some foreign countries — during the first half of the last century. Estimates are that more than 60,000 people in this country were sterilized under the programs, including 7,600 in North Carolina. Historians believe that the actual number is much higher, that thousands of procedures were performed under the direction of local authorities that are not included in the totals.
States began to abandon the programs with the onset of World War II as they became too similar to what was happening in Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler was constructing death camps in pursuit of his master race of blondes with blue eyes. But in North Carolina, the procedures actually ramped up, peaking in the 1950s, and, incredibly, the last one was performed in this state as recently as 1974, just 38 years ago. It’s estimated that as many as 2,000 people who underwent the procedure in North Carolina are alive and eligible for compensation, but only 72 of them have been identified.
What now distinguishes North Carolina is its effort to become the first state to compensate victims. That has happened because Gov. Beverly Perdue last year appointed a five-member task force — a judge, doctor, former journalist, historian and lawyer — to study the possibility of compensation. No other state has taken that step, although North Carolina, and a handful of other states have issued formal apologies.
We always caution against using today’s morals when judging the actions of those who lived in yesteryear, but any state-sanctioned program to forcibly sterilize humans seems to us barbaric no matter the time in history.
Nothing can undo the damage, and a $50,000 award to the victims hardly tips the scale, but it’s a gesture that had to be made and was tardy in arriving. We hope other states that were responsible for this black mark in our nation’s history see fit to follow North Carolina’s lead.