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House panel OKs plan to pay eugenics victims

Posted May 22, 2012 4:01 a.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2012 6:58 p.m. EDT

— A state House committee voted Tuesday in favor of legislation that would pay $50,000 to people who were sterilized against their will.

From 1929 to 1974, more than 7,600 people in North Carolina were surgically rendered unable to reproduce under state laws and rules that targeted people deemed unfit to be parents. They included epileptics, those considered mentally defective and many who were simply poor.

The compensation bill was filed last week in the House and Senate. Victims would receive a tax-free, lump-sum payment, with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, to file a claim. The state Industrial Commission would determine eligibility, and the state treasurer would issue payments.

The House Judiciary Committee sent the proposal on to the full House, but the vote wasn't unanimous.

"People today paying for something that happened in the past I do not believe is correct. I don't think it's right," said Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow.

Although Cleveland called the eugenics program "despicable," his opposition to compensation angered some victims and their relatives.

"These people were bullies – bullies who had money – and bullies still exist," said Deborah Chesson, whose mother was sterilized in 1964.

Chesson said a social worker threatened to cut off her family's public assistance if her mother, who was a teenager at the time, resisted the surgery.

"Just by hearing the representative talk about, that they didn't do it, so why should they pay, who are you going to point the finger at?" she said as she choked back tears.

About a quarter of the sterilization victims are estimated to still be alive. So far, the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation has identified 132 victims, 118 of whom are living.

Foundation executive director Charmaine Cooper-Fuller said she expects more victims to come forward if the legislature approves compensation.

The bill also provides continued funding for the Sterilization Victims Foundation, which serves as a clearinghouse for verification requests.

State Eugenics Task Force chair Laura Gerald said it's hard to put a number on the pain caused by the sterilization program, but she said she hopes compensation can recognize the state's mistake and help victims.

"Compensation also serves a collective purpose to the state and sends a clear message that we in North Carolina are a people who pay for our mistakes," Gerald said. "We do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights."