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Victims of NC forced sterilization program tell their stories

Posted June 22, 2011

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— Several victims of North Carolina's nearly five-decade-long forced sterilization program testified Wednesday to a board deciding how to compensate people whose ability to have children was taken away from them in the name of improving society.

Nearly 3,000 of the roughly 7,600 North Carolinians sterilized between 1929 and 1975 are still alive. The Eugenics Task Force is considering whether they should be given money or other types of assistance.

Elaine Riddick said she was sterilized in 1968 at age 13, a year after being raped by a neighbor and giving birth.

"They cut me open like I was a hog," a sobbing Riddick said. "My body was too young for what they did."

Other victims said they were lied to about the purpose of the surgery.

Mary Frances Smith-English said a physician laughed at her when she told him she was getting married and wanted the procedure reversed. Her doctors told her a few years earlier that the procedure was a way for her not to worry about birth control, she said.

"When you go through something like that, you don't get over it," Smith-English said.

Charles Holt wept quietly as Melissa Hyatt, a woman who adopted him as her father, related his sterilization experience. Holt was institutionalized at the Murdoch Developmental Center in Butner as a teen and was told he could get out and return home if he underwent a surgery.

"Charles has the ability to be a great father, but that ability was taken away from him at an early age," Hyatt said, adding that the experience led to Holt's drinking problem.

Sterilization victim Sterilization victims express anger, grief

Thirty-three states adopted eugenics programs in the early 1900s out of a belief that humanity could evolve and society be improved by breeding out undesirable characteristics.

Most states and other countries abandoned such efforts after World War II because of similarities with Nazi Germany's programs for racial purity. North Carolina's eugenics program expanded, however, with sterilizations peaking in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Rationalization ranged from protecting the potential offspring of mentally disabled parents to improving the overall health and intellectual competence of the human race.

North Carolina had the most open-ended law in the country, allowing doctors and social workers to refer people living at home to the state Eugenics Board for possible sterilization. In other states, people had to be either institutionalized or jailed before they could be sterilized.

Most of the victims were mental health patients, prisoners, poor or people the state deemed to be promiscuous. Roughly 85 percent were women or girls, some as young as 10.

Victims of state sterilization tell their stories Web only: Victims of state sterilization tell their stories

Gov. Beverly Perdue sat through part of the meeting, saying she was proud of the courage the victims displayed in telling their stories.

"It's hard for me to accept, to understand, to even figure out how these atrocious acts could be carried out in this country," Perdue said. "This is not a good day for us, to hear the stories. It's not a happy day for North Carolina."

At least seven states have offered formal apologies for involuntary sterilizations, including North Carolina in 2001. So far, only North Carolina has set up a process to compensate individual victims. It remains to be determined whether the state's compensation will extend to family members or individuals sterilized by local health departments or private hospitals that were not part of the state program.

Some of those who testified Wednesday said the $20,000 compensation that has been proposed isn't enough. They suggested free health care to make up for the years of physical and mental health problems they have suffered. Others said the state should erect a memorial to the victims to educate the public about the sterilization program.

"What do you think I'm worth?" Riddick asked task force members. "It doesn't matter what you think I'm worth. It's what I think I'm worth."

Hyatt compared the sterilization victims to Darryl Hunt, a former inmate who received a $1 million settlement after being wrongly convicted of rape.

"These victims are living out life-term sentences, not 16 or 17 years," she said.

"We thank North Carolina for the apology, but it's not enough," said Australia Clay, whose late mother was sterilized in 1965 after being admitted to Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro for postpartum depression.

"We thank you for the $20,000, but it's not enough. You're going to have to dig deeper," Clay said.

The task force hopes to make some recommendations to Perdue by Aug. 1. Anyone who couldn't testify Wednesday can provide information to the task force by visiting its website or calling its toll-free hotline at 877-550-6013 before July 7.

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  • jg01 Jun 28, 1:38 p.m.

    "No one can doubt that there are times when an abortion is justifiable but they will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception. This is the only cure for abortions."- sanger

  • jg01 Jun 28, 1:35 p.m.

    "It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization. For upon the foundation of an enlightened and voluntary motherhood shall a future civilization emerge." - sanger

  • wdprice3 Jun 24, 11:51 a.m.

    while I feel sorry for these people... why do I owe them money?

  • randall0123a Jun 24, 10:14 a.m.

    Sorry for this previous policy. But, why don't we move forward and do the right thing - criminals should not be breeding. People that can't pay for the children they already have should not continue to breed.

  • toldham01 Jun 23, 4:19 p.m.

    My heart goes out to all of the victims and nothing will ever make up for the pain that they were forced to endure but why is that the first thing the state or any other system thinks of is money. We are a broke state with obsurd pay raises going to workers in the legislature, state workers being cut by the dozens and now gas tax going up....where do we as a state think we are getting the money to compensate these victims. Why is a public apology and acknowledgment of the wrong doings not enough...will the money change the past NO, so take the valadation of the crime and be happy because there are so many that never even get that...

  • slantedeyes Jun 23, 2:17 p.m.

    I agree totally with Jaydosse, Im lovin it because it is the truth!! For people to think it ok to sterilize people against their will disgusting.This is the last post I will leave just happy to know every one in nc is not delusional wake up if it can happen to them it can happen to you. just on a different level. The End

  • Dukefan1 Jun 23, 1:57 p.m.

    I am not opposed to these folks being compensated for what the state did to them. But where is the money coming from? There is not enough for education and state employees, so where is the money coming from to pay them.

  • jaydosse Jun 23, 1:49 p.m.

    "We can't give and give when the bank is broke. We already give too much. It doesn't matter what color,race or gender....everyone abuses the system and it's about time for the US to wake up." -lissad821-

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++=

    # 1 Everyone does not abuse the system

    # 2 But is it ok for speaker Tillis to give his staff obscene salary raises during this great economic crisis?? Again I repeat, one of his staffers just recently received a $30,000 per year raise ( $120,00 to $150,000 per year ). Other members of his staff also received obscene pay increases. This $$$$$ also comes out of the taxpayers pockets. I guess politicians are above reproach.

  • bill0 Jun 23, 1:41 p.m.

    "My question would be how many of these poor women were married. MY guess is none of them."

    Well, the 13 year old rape victims probably weren't married, but what is your point?

    I don't think some people realize how horrible this really was. We have young children who were raped and then had their rapist child (there was no legal abortion at that point.) Instead of prosecuting the rapists and getting some counseling for the child, what does the state do? Perform surgery on the victim so we don't end up with any more unwanted rape babies. That is almost too evil for me to even comprehend. Don't bother addressing the real problem. Just sterilize the poor girl so she can continue to get raped but society won't have to worry about the pesky unwanted children that result.

    Anyone who is dismissing this evil or making light of it really needs to have their heads examined.

  • lissad821 Jun 23, 1:21 p.m.

    Jaydosse- First and foremost I AM NOT a spoiled brat. FWIW my grandparents raised my brother and myself due to unfit parents and yes we had medicaid growing up b/c my grandparents couldn't afford health insurance. But we both graduated high school,college and now have families we support by working. I never want my two boys to go through what I did as a child. I feel bad for SOME of these people but giving money to them isn't going to make the pain and bad memories go away.We can't give and give when the bank is broke. We already give too much. It doesn't matter what color,race or gender....everyone abuses the system and it's about time for the US to wake up. Just because you grow up in poverty doesn't mean you can't make something of your life. Too bad the parents are teaching their children this and they are the ones being greedy and selfish. Thanks and have a great day.
    BTW I'm Cherokee and I'm not asking to compensated for my ancestors who lived through the trail of tears?

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