A Democratic legislator in North Carolina is fighting to give people forcibly sterilized by the state four decades ago more time to file for compensation under a 2013 law that gave them a year to come forward.
Fewer than half the estimated 1,800 living sterilization victims, most of them poor, black women, filed claims by the June 30 deadline. The state is closing the door on the rest, a stance that undermines the first and only eugenics reparations in the U.S., said Representative Larry Hall, a 58-year-old who represents Durham.
“It’s shameful that we would know we damaged these people like we did and not do everything possible to make up for it,” Hall said. “These were horrific acts committed by the state. It would be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad.”
North Carolina’s decision to pay sterilization victims, more than a decade in the making, exemplifies challenges faced by states trying to address their misdeeds of the past. In the U.S. South, legislators have resisted eugenics compensation for fear of setting a precedent for reparations for slavery and civil-rights violations.
While the 2013 compensation law was a bipartisan effort, the deadline debate isn’t. Republican legislators, who control both houses, and Republican Governor Pat McCrory oppose an extension, saying it would reduce money for victims who met the deadline. The state budgeted $10 million for claims.
“If you extend it, then the people that after years and years of waiting were going to get their money, and who met the deadline, will get less and wait longer,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Stam.
A delay will “force eugenics victims to wait longer to receive this long-overdue compensation while many victims are dying every year,” McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said in an e-mail. “The governor is proud to be from the first state in the nation that will address the injustice that was committed.”
Hall began circulating a discharge petition last week to force the House to vote on giving victims three more months. Stam, who co-sponsored the original law, wrote a letter urging colleagues not to sign it.
North Carolina was among at least 32 states that sterilized those deemed unfit to reproduce, according to Paul Lombardo, a Georgia State University law professor. Fear of other reparation demands delayed compensation for years, as former state senator Chris Carney told the Mooresville Tribune newspaper in 2012.
“If we do something like this, you open up the door to other things the state did in its history,” he said. “And some, I’m sure you’d agree, are worse than this.”
North Carolina, a slave state before the Civil War, has struggled to digest its history. In 2006, it acknowledged that the so-called Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 was a white coup that overthrew the city’s mixed-race government, setting the tone for decades of segregation across the South.
The past informs more modern controversies. In 1990, the late Jesse Helms, the state’s senior U.S. senator, won office and notoriety with a television ad that stoked resentment of minorites. More recently, civil-rights advocates have said a voter-identification law passed last year is meant to suppress black votes.
The sterilization program also disproportionately targeted blacks: By the 1960s, they made up 25 percent of the state’s population and 60 percent of those sterilized.
Eugenics laws mirrored a theory favored by industrialists who advocated controlling reproduction to improve the population’s genetic makeup. Targets included prison and asylum inmates, the mentally disabled or those deemed deviant, a category that, in southern states, grew to include unwed black mothers and the poor.
Indiana passed the first such law in 1907, targeting male inmates caught masturbating, said Lombardo. California sterilized men it considered deviants, including homosexuals. It performed the operation on more than 21,000 people, the most in the U.S.
North Carolina passed its law in 1929. Over the next 45 years, the state sterilized 7,600 people, the third most in the country, behind California and Virginia. Eighty-five percent were women and 2,000 were under 18. The state castrated 65 men. A five-member Eugenics Board controlled sterilizations, although counties had their own programs.
One woman was sterilized because “she seems lazy and unconcerned” and another for passing love letters at school, according to board minutes excerpted in a summary distributed by Stam. The panel decided for sterilization in 90 percent of cases, the summary said.
Most U.S. states stopped the practice after 1945. North Carolina performed 79 percent of its sterilizations after that. By the 1960s, black women on welfare were a primary target: A group called the Human Betterment League promoted sterilization as a way to save tax dollars.
For victims, the scars lasted decades, said Lottie Sanders, 74, who now cares for her autistic sister, Barbara, who was sterilized at 19.
“She was pregnant and they took her baby and then they sterilized her,” Sanders said. “She has a very difficult time processing it even now, and she’s 72. She still thinks she’s pregnant some times. I avoid talking to her about it. It just triggers everything again. It’s very traumatic for her.”
North Carolina abolished the Eugenics Board in 1977, apologized formally in 2002 and repealed its sterilization laws in 2003, which is also when former Representative Larry Womble, a Winston-Salem Democrat, began fighting for compensation, an effort later joined by anti-abortion Republicans.
In 2013, the legislature allocated $50,000 per victim. As of the June 30 cutoff, 700 people had filed for compensation, said Chris Mears, spokesman for the Administration Department, which processes claims.
Victims’ advocates say the state should have set no deadline and that it provided no funding for outreach to track down people who might have been unaware of the program.
Lombardo, the Georgia State professor, said that even if 1,100 more victims are alive, the state should wait for them on moral grounds, he said.
“We are talking about a vanishingly small number of people,” he said. “It’s not going to break the state of North Carolina or any other state.”
Sanders, who filed on behalf of her sister, agrees.
“I think it’s awful,” she said. “They should keep it open. Not everybody gets the word.”