North Carolina Determines Appropriate Compensation For Victims of State-Run Eugenics Program

December 10th, 2011

This story, which I blogged about earlier, just breaks my heart. The coercive power of the state to sterilize people for low IQs–given the imprimatur of constitutionality by the United States Supreme Court–makes me revolt.

Although North Carolina officially apologized in 2002 and legislators have pressed to compensate victims before, a task force appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue is again wrestling with the state’s obligation to the estimated 7,600 victims of its eugenics program.

The board operated from 1933 to 1977 as an experiment in genetic engineering once considered a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool.

Thirty-one other states had eugenics programs. Virginia and California each sterilized more people than North Carolina. But no program was more aggressive.

Only North Carolina gave social workers the power to designate people for sterilization. They often relied on I.Q. tests like those done on Mr. Holt, whose scores reached 73. But for some victims who often spent more time picking cotton than in school, the I.Q. tests at the time were not necessarily accurate predictors of capability. For example, as an adult Mr. Holt held down three jobs at once, delivering newspapers, working at a grocery store and doing maintenance for a small city.

Wealthy businessmen, among them James Hanes, the hosiery magnate, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, drove the eugenics movement. They helped form the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947, and found a sympathetic bureaucrat in Wallace Kuralt, the father of the television journalist Charles Kuralt.

A proponent of birth control in all forms, Mr. Kuralt used the program extensively when he was director of the Mecklenburg County welfare department from 1945 to 1972. That county had more sterilizations than any other in the state.

Over all, about 70 percent of the North Carolina operations took place after 1945, and many of them were on poor young women and racial minorities. Nonwhite minorities made up about 40 percent of those sterilized, and girls and women about 85 percent.

The program, while not specifically devised to target racial minorities, affected black Americans disproportionately because they were more often poor and uneducated and from large rural families.

The reasons for the sterilizations are scary:

The reasons were chilling, reports from state records and interviews with survivors and researchers show.

There was a 14-year-old girl deemed low-performing and “oversexed” who came from a home with poor housekeeping standards. A man who raped his daughter at 12 signed her sterilization consent when she was 16 and pregnant. A mother of five was deemed to have a low I.Q.

Elaine Riddick, 57, who also lives in Atlanta, was sterilized in 1967. She was 14 and had gotten pregnant from a rape. Social workers persuaded her illiterate grandmother to sign the consent form with an X.

For Nial Ramirez, 65, who was sterilized at 18 after she gave birth to her daughter, no amount could make it right.

A social worker from the Washington County Department of Public Welfare suggested that she get sterilized. Mrs. Ramirez said she did not understand that the procedure was permanent and thought she had no choice.

“They told me that my brothers and sisters were going to be in the streets all because of you,” she said. “It’s either sign the paper or mama’s checks get cut off.”

That sounds an awful lot like the story of Cary Buck, who was only deemed promiscuous after she was raped.

I’m glad to see the article specifically mentions Holmes in the article. For all the Herbert-Spencer crap the Lochner court gets, the true Social Darwinist on the Court was Holmes (and his fellow-Progressive-traveller, Wilson).

The United States began practicing eugenics in earnest in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, driven by a philosophy of social engineering once so popular that President Woodrow Wilson, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the Supreme Court and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, were ardent supporters.

Don’t forget, Roe v. Wade favorably cites Buck v. Bell:

In fact, it is not clear to us that the claim asserted by some amici that one has an unlimited right to do with one’s body as one pleases bears a close relationship to the right of privacy previously articulated in the Court’s decisions. The Court has refused to recognize an unlimited right of this kind in the past. Jacobson v. Massachusetts,197 U.S. 11 (1905) (vaccination);Buck v. Bell,274 U.S. 200 (1927) ( sterilization).

We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified, and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.

And you don’t get to Buck v. Bell without Jacobson v. Massachusetts, another case I have bemoaned about at some length.

I get viscerally disgusted when I read this.