Brophy on Compensation for Victims of Sterilization in North Carolina

February 10th, 2012

There are several issues that especially interest me in all of this.  First, just how did the government’s program function?  Who was selected for sterilization; how did the administrative agency — the state Eugenics Board — operate; what are the demographic data on the gender, age, race, and family status of those sterilized?   (North Carolina’s first sterilization act, passed in 1929, was struck down by the North Carolina Supreme Court in Brewer v. Valk in 1933 because it didn’t afford enough due process.)  Judging from the Eugenics Board Meeting minutes that are on the North Carolina Sterilization Victims Compensation Fund website the hearings were perfunctory and often no family members challenged the petition for sterilization.  And rather hauntingly — though understandably — there were well-established administrative procedures for this, including a type-script manual produced in 1948, and pre-printed sterilization petitions for state officials to fill out.

Closely related to those questions are very difficult questions to determine about the amount coercion (or, conversely consent — if any) involved.  As the Task Force’s final report acknowledges, there were varying levels of coercion involved in all of this.  For many people the sterilization was involuntary; for others there was coercion; and for some (Johanna Schoen’s Choice & Coercion, Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare, the leading book on this subject, suggests that perhaps as many as 20% during the 1960s) the process was “voluntary.”  Apparently many women, especially in the 1960s, sought state-supplied sterilization as a method of family planning.  How many of those “voluntary” requests (what Schoen called elective sterilization) were coerced in some way, or suggested to those requesting them by government officials, or family members is unclear.  We may never be know that information.  Undoubtedly, some of these cases resulted in some of the most outrageous interferences in personal autonomy practiced in the US in the twentieth century.

This saga is heart-wrenching. Thank you Justice Holmes.