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Victims of NC forced sterilization program tell their stories

Posted June 22, 2011 6:49 a.m. EDT
Updated June 22, 2011 6:55 p.m. EDT

— 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.

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.

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.