Erasing the legacy of forced sterilization


It’s good to hear that the California Senate is at least in the nascent stages of considering compensation for people forcibly sterilized by its state. I hope the full state legislature approves that compensation. As a leader in the successful fight of 13 years to make my state the first in the nation to approve compensation, I can tell my friends on the West Coast that the battle won’t be easy.

But this national movement is one well worth pushing. We need to learn from our colossal blunders to head off future ones, especially as bioethics struggles to keep up with biotech and we confront questions such as where gene therapy ends and gene enhancement begins.

More than 30 states had forced sterilization programs. More than 60,000 people in the country were sterilized in the last century, the majority against their knowledge and will. These programs fit one U.N. definition of genocide: preventing a group from reproducing. This was American genocide indeed.

My state, North Carolina, ran one of the most brutal programs. It rendered barren more than 7,600 men, women, and children from the dawn of the Great Depression through the fall of Nixon. It deemed these victims mentally or physically unfit to reproduce on the basis of flawed evidence that included faulty IQ testing and even, at times, gossip. The victims were overwhelmingly poor and vulnerable, unable to battle the powerful and the prominent who controlled the Eugenics Board of North Carolina. Despite North Carolina enjoying a reputation as one of the few Southern states to, for the most part, peacefully integrate, the sterilization program concentrated on African-American women and the poor.

Hiding in plain sight, the program sterilized its own story with cheery press releases that newspapers including mine relied on heavily. The program quietly died in 1974, collapsing under the weight of modernity, greater access to birth control, and two federal lawsuits that eventually failed but garnered national attention in the 1980s.

In the summer of 2002, as part of an investigative team at the Winton-Salem Journal, I tracked down the two women who had filed those suits, Nial Cox Ramirez and Elaine Riddick. They’d been frozen in their heartache for 20 years, and they were ready to tell their stories to the world. A Journal team composed of Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, Scott Sexton, Ted Richardson and I told their stories and that of the full program in the series Against Their Will.

North Carolina state Rep. Larry Womble, a Democrat, soon followed us up with a bill for compensation. As an editorial writer and then as editorial page writer for the Journal, I backed him. I kept talking to Nial, Elaine, and other victims and telling their stories. They became my friends. These people’s wisdom gives the lie to their IQ tests.

But for years, the compensation fight was slow going.

Finally, in 2013, after Womble was almost killed in a car wreck, Republican Thom Tillis, the leader of the state House and now a U.S. Senator, pushed compensation through, a $10 million pool to be shared equally among qualified victims. The final checks, just over $45,000 to more than 200 victims, went out in February.

No amount of money could ever compensate these victims for what they went through. But money is the way we settle scores in this country, and large settlements should serve as loud warnings against future injustices. North Carolina, then Virginia, have led in sterilization compensation.

Now comes a third state. Bring it on, California.