Between 1933 and 1974, the state of North Carolina sterilized thousands of people in an effort to supposedly improve society. About 76-hundred men and women were lied to, coerced, or forced into medical procedures that left them unable to bear children, often when they were children themselves. This spring Governor Bev Perdue convened a task force to study the issue and determine how to compensate victims who are still living. That task force met in Raleigh yesterday to hear those victims’ stories.
They came from all over the state. They were black, white, male, female… and each had a slightly different story of how being sterilized changed their lives or the life of someone they loved. 57-year-old Elaine Riddich was raped at 14, and became pregnant. When she gave birth by cesarean section, doctors also sterilized her. The reason? They diagnosed her as feeble minded.
Elaine Riddich: "I am not feeble minded, I have never been feeble minded. They slandered me, they ridiculed and harassed me, they cut me open like I was a hog. When this kid here was born, I didn’t know nothing about … this stuff. "
And Riddich continued not to know. She only learned of her sterilization when she eventually married and found herself unable to get pregnant again. She says the realization threw her into deep depression. Riddich’s one son, Tony, testified after her. He says his mother was raped twice – once by a man and once by the state.
Tony Riddich: "You took away my mother’s ability to do what God asked her to do. He asked her to be prolific, be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth and you took all of that not just away from her, but from other men and women who are here in this audience, and you did it for reasons that you knew were wrong."
North Carolina passed a eugenics law in 1919 and another in 1929. It took until 1933 to establish a Board that reviewed the cases of people who were diagnosed as feeble minded, mentally ill, epileptic, promiscuous.
Corye Dunn works for Disability Rights North Carolina, the state’s protection and advocacy organization for people with disabilities. She says her organization hears routinely from people who were sterilized and never knew it.
Corye Dunn: "There are people who had physical or intellectual disabilities or were being treated and needed treatment for a mental illness, and instead of being treated appropriately, they were sterilized. "
The Eugenics Board had a representative from the state attorney general’s office, public health experts, psychiatrists and doctors. That bothers Doctor Laura Gerald who heads the task force that convened yesterday’s meeting.
Laura Gerald: "Certainly, as a physician as well, someone who has been charged with doing no harm it is very hard to think about others who were supposed to protect people actually hurting them. So that… it’s just been a very emotional, difficult day. "
There are still about 3000 victims left alive. In 2002, Governor Mike Easley issued a formal apology to them. Governors in other states where there were eugenics programs have also apologized, but only North Carolina is contemplating any kind of compensation. In March of this year, Governor Bev Perdue convened the task force to determine what that compensation might be. The governor made a stop at the hearing,
Bev Perdue: "These are hard stories to hear and it makes you wonder who we were as a people in those years. And the state of North Carolina is a partner with you in trying to bring awareness and to redress in some way however we may, these awful ills of our society."
Mostly, though, Perdue spent her time sitting in back, listening.
But there might not be much political will for anything other than words and gestures. Representative Larry Womble from Forsyth County has been introducing bills for years that seek to make some kind of amends. He’s adamant the General Assembly should consider them.
Larry Womble: "The right thing is the government be responsible for what they did, the government have to pay for what they did. "
Originally, Womble wanted a bill that would compensate victims 50 thousand dollars each. He’s dropped that to 20 thousand dollars, but the bill still hasn’t come to the floor.
Womble: "And I know that we have a budget crunch, but what about the years when we did not have a budget crunch. It was not addressed then. And so… the government can spend… somebody said 25 million dollars for a pier? Down in Wilmington? You certainly can find some millions of dollars for these living human beings, rather than an inanimate pier. We can find the money when we want to find the money."
The task force will provide preliminary recommendations to the governor in August.