Compensation for Victims of Eugenics Gains Notice

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

During the past legislative session, the General Assembly seriously debated whether to divert funds to compensate sterilization victims of North Carolina’s eugenics program.

Long before many other organizations discussed the issue, John Locke Foundation staff penned commentaries in 2005 and 2007 and made presentations from 2008-10 about the history of the movement and called for compensating living victims.

It’s a hot subject many will not touch. Some are afraid that providing compensation would be an incremental step to giving reparations for slavery, so they would rather not discuss the problem. The two issues are distinct. Hundreds of sterilization victims are still alive. The last surviving slave died decades ago.

Others don’t want to touch the issue because it calls into question one tenet of Progressive ideology — implementing coercive government programs for the general good.

The Eugenics Board was established the same year the Third Reich began — 1933. Before Nazi Germany instituted forced sterilization programs, North Carolina enacted a sterilization law in 1929 and started forced sterilizations. When states decreased the number of sterilizations in the second half of the 20th century, North Carolina bucked the trend and increased sterilizations. Over 57 years, according to some sources, the government had violated 7,600 individuals. Thankfully, the state ended the Eugenics Board of North Carolina in 1974.

Eugenics is the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits from reproducing (negative eugenics) or encouraging persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits to reproduce (positive eugenics).

The Eugenics Board’s main goal was to alleviate poverty and eradicate addiction and crime. In the board’s latter years, social workers were given power to identify “undesirables” and recommend to a five-member Eugenics Board that a person be sterilized. North Carolina allowed sterilizations for three reasons: epilepsy, sickness, and “feeblemindedness.”

Poor and rural North Carolinians seemed to be the primary targets. I seriously have wondered how many “feebleminded” Tar Heels came from rural areas and to what extent the cultural clash between urban and rural America contributed to interpretations of “feeblemindedness.” Whatever the case, the victims were poor and were duped into sacrificing their reproductive abilities.

Throughout the history of the eugenics program in the state, men and women were targeted as sterilization candidates. Women, however, comprised the vast majority: six out of seven victims were women.

Blacks and whites were targeted, too. Overall, more white women were victims than black women. And overall, more white men than black men. Approximately 40 Indians (all but one of them female) were sterilized, too.

It’s important to note that the number of sterilizations, especially of black North Carolinians, increased dramatically after World War II, when more people were allowed to receive welfare benefits. Early on, the eugenics program disproportionately affected whites. But overall, from 1933 to 1973, it disproportionately targeted African Americans.

Questions of race, class, and gender should be asked about the eugenics program, yet it seems the elephant in the room everyone ignores is government intervention.

North Carolina’s eugenics program reveals the consequences of government’s excessive meddling. Government started a welfare program that had inherent flaws. Officials tried to repair those flaws by intervening in people’s lives — in this case, actually entering bodies to prevent “undesirables” from having more children who might empty government coffers.

Without government power, the narrow-minded would not have been able to sterilize approximately 7,600 North Carolina individuals — white and black, male and female. Power allows people to act on their prejudices, whatever they may be.

In June, my JLF colleague Daren Bakst published an extensive policy report, North Carolina Forced Sterilization Program: A Case for Compensating the Living Victims. I recommend it.