Victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program and their advocates are hoping today’s first-ever public airing of their stories will prompt state lawmakers to compensate the victims for what the state did to them in the name of mental hygiene years ago.
North Carolina wasn’t the only state with a eugenics program, but it was one of the country’s most active, functioning from 1929 into 1974. One witness after another testified they were lied to by doctors, or had their signatures forged, or simply didn’t understand that the state had decided to sterilize them as a way to improve society – often for no better reason than they were poor or pregnant or “feeble-minded.”
“North Carolina has done more than any other state about this,” said Rep. Larry Womble, who’s taken a personal interest in the issue over the past nine years. He sponsored the bill that took the eugenics law off the books in 2003, asked for (and got) an apology for the program from then-Gov. Mike Easley, and assisted a task force on the issue that led to a monument and a display to the victims.
Gov. Bev Perdue was expected to sign his House Bill 374 today, sealing the records of people forcibly sterilized by the state so that only they, their families, or their representatives can access them. He says the bill will “make sure that we protect these victims so they won’t be exploited.”
Two other bills he ran this session haven’t yet moved: H73, which would give survivors state health care for life, and H70, which would set aside $18.5 million to compensate survivors of the program at $20,000 each.
“People call it reparations, but I don’t,” Womble said. “I call it compensation, because they’re victims.”
“We’ve made some baby steps, but you know as we get closer to the biggie, there’s some pushback because they don’t want to really give compensation,” said Womble. “I’m saying, well, the state did it, the government - this wasn’t some third world country, right here in North Carolina did it, so North Carolina needs to step up to the plate.”
Australia Clay said the state needs to take action soon.
Clay’s mother, Margaret Cheek, was institutionalized for 12 years at Cherry Hospital, where she was subjected to electroshock therapy without sedation and then sterilized before she was released. Her “crime” was post-partum depression.
“We went through a lot as children, we really did. You know, our mom was just taken from us. So we didn’t really know her. We took care of a stranger, because we didn’t really know her,” Clay said. “But she loved us, and she was our mother. And for them to say she was feeble-minded and all that? She was not.”
Clay says Womble’s proposed compensation of $20,000 doesn’t even begin to cover her family’s pain or the medical problems that plagued her mother throughout her life.
“I’m thinking a million dollars is not too little for what everybody’s been through,” Clay said. “As a matter a fact, it’s not enough.”
But at whatever price, Clay just hopes the state acts soon. “North Carolina is waiting too long. There are a lot of these people that are dead,” she said.
“These people aren’t gonna be here long. And there are others that are sick, that are dead. They don’t have probably 3000 of these people left. They say they do, but they don’t.”