The father of eugenics science, Sir Frances Galton, wanted to improve the human race by sterilizing people who were deemed “unfit.” Beginning in 1883, he and others used eugenics pseudoscience to influence the passage of legislation upholding sterilization procedures.
With the passage of the North Carolina Sterilization Act in 1929, North Carolina’s sterilization program began. In 1933, the act was declared unconstitutional on the grounds that it did not allow an appeals process. In the same year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law allowing an appeal process and created the Board of Eugenics to oversee sterilizations.
Created in Pasadena, California in 1928, the Human Betterment Foundation sponsored and conducted research relating to sterilization’s physiological, mental, and social effects. Closely aligned with the Human Betterment Foundation, the Human Betterment League of North Carolina used mass media and advertisements to promote the implementation of sterilization procedures. Founded by James G. Hanes in 1947, the Human Betterment League included members, such as Alice Shelton Gray, a trained nurse, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, an heir to the Procter and Gamble fortune.
The League funded a newspaper article campaign to convince the public that sterilizations were needed. In the literature, sterilization was not presented as a form of punishment but as a protection. The public was informed that most of the “unfit” did not live in mental institutions but were in the community and "breeding," according to the literature, with normal people. The League persuasively convinced North Carolinians that the sterilizations must occur as soon as possible.
After World War II, many states dismantled their sterilization programs; they feared that their eugenics efforts might be compared to Nazi Germany. In North Carolina, however, sterilization increased by nearly four-fifths. By 1957, the League distributed more than 575,000 pieces of mail which promoted the sterilization program. During the 1960s, social workers were given the authority to recommend sterilizations, and the eugenics program expanded to include welfare recipients. These factors contributed greatly to the increase in sterilizations among African Americans and women.
During the early 1970s, the League stopped promoting eugenic sterilizations and started producing educational material regarding birth control and genetic counseling. The League’s name changed to The Human Genetics League. It went out of existence in 1988.
Kevin Begos. “Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program.” Winston-Salem Journal, 8-12 December 2002. Electronic access: http://extras.journalnow.com/againsttheirwill/. (accessed June 30, 2009).; Kelly Carroll. “North Carolina’s Hidden Agenda: The Coerced Sterilization of Welfare Mothers in Post-War America” University of North Carolina at Asheville, Senior Thesis. November 2008.; Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States. “North Carolina”. http://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/NC/NC.html (accessed June 30, 2009).