RALEIGH, N.C. — As many as 2,000 people forcibly sterilized decades ago in North Carolina should get $50,000 each, a task force said Tuesday, marking the first time a state has moved to compensate victims of eugenics programs that weeded out the “feeble-minded” and others deemed undesirable.
The payout of up to $100 million still needs approval from the legislature. But passage of some sort of compensation is considered likely because the Democratic governor immediately embraced the task force recommendation, and the Republican leader of the state House has said the victims should get payments.
While dozens of states had programs in the 20th century that allowed people to be sterilized against their will in the name of improving the human race, none of the others has offered anything more than apologies.
Compensation “sends a clear message that we in North Carolina are people who pay for our mistakes and that we do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights,” said panel chairwoman Dr. Laura Gerald, a pediatrician.
At least 7,600 people were surgically rendered unable to reproduce in North Carolina from 1929 to 1974 under state laws and practices that singled out epileptics and others considered mentally defective. Many were poor, black women deemed unfit to be parents.
A task force report last year said 1,500 to 2,000 of the victims were still alive, though the state has verified only 72 so far.
Last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue created the five-person task force to decide how to compensate victims. It consisted of a judge, a doctor, a former journalist, a historian and a lawyer.
The panel had discussed amounts between $20,000 and $50,000, and some victims and family members had bitterly complained that the payouts were too low. The panel also weighed whether to compensate victims’ family members or descendants - some people were sterilized after giving birth - but decided against it.
On Tuesday, some victims said they were simply looking forward to seeing the issue resolved.
Elaine Riddick, 57, was sterilized at 14 after she gave birth to a son who was the product of a rape.
“I was a victim twice: once by the rapist and one by the state of North Carolina. Normally, if you commit a crime, you pay for it. They committed the biggest crime. They committed a crime against God. They committed a crime against humanity,” she said, wiping tears from her face. “And this is all I can do is just accept what they said today and go on with my life.”
While taking away someone’s ability to have children sounds barbaric today, eugenics programs gained popularity in the U.S. and other countries in the early 1900s, promoted as a means of raising the overall health and intellectual level of the human race.
More than 30 states enacted laws allowing surgical sterilization for certain people, though not all of the states carried out such procedures. More than 60,000 were forcibly sterilized under such programs, and some historians think the same thing was done to thousands more in other states under the authority of doctors or local officials.
Most states abandoned those efforts after World War II when such practices became closely associated with Nazi Germany’s efforts to achieve racial purity, though North Carolina stood out because it actually ramped up its program after the war.