It’s a testament to human evolution that we can look back on this nation’s eugenics programs in disgust and bewilderment, and wonder how it was that 65,000 Americans in 30 states were forcibly sterilized in a folly to craft a more perfect human race. That is progress from a time when eugenics was widely embraced by the likes of Charles Darwin’s son, Leonard, Winston Churchill and Alexander Graham Bell.
But the stench from the sterilization programs, which were carried out in 30 states from the late-1800s to the mid-1970s, endures — and haunts. Read staff writer Abbi Overfelt’s Page 1A story today for a testimonial — and understand there are thousands more with beating hearts and similar stories.
In North Carolina, the best information is that about 7,600 people were sterilized — the third most of any state — from 1929 to 1974, making this state tardy in ending the program — long after it widely fell into disfavor because of the obvious similarities to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Incredibly, the program in North Carolina was actually expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, which explains why there are an estimated 1,800 survivors today in this state.
The victims were those identified as “feeble-minded,” mentally handicapped or mentally ill. Making eugenics more sinister is that a disproportionate number of the victims were, poor, women and of color, blacks and American Indians, underlining who was in charge at the time.
So far, surviving eugenics victims — and their relatives, but not their descendants since that opportunity was denied — have been given no more than an apology from then Gov. Mike Easley. That was about to change when this state’s House appropriated $11 million to be paid to surviving victims, with each receiving $50,000.
But the Senate didn’t go along, and no money for compensation — not reparations, the difference is stark — was included in a budget approved by the General Assembly on Friday that will be sent to Gov. Bev Perdue.
North Carolina was not alone in prosecuting this atrocity on the weakest among us, but this state could have distinguished itself by doing the right thing and providing a pittance of compensation to those who directly suffered. The cost in dollars is inconsequential, but the gesture would have been monumental.
The opportunity to do so remains, but the time to act is quickly, as victims are aging and dying.