The cover story for this week’s Independent Weekly (on newsstands in the Triangle from 3/24/10 to 3/30/10), discusses the victims of North Carolina’s 20th-century eugenics program and the current campaign for reparations to people (mostly poor black women) who were forcibly sterilized. As of March 1, 2010, the state has established an organization to finally bring justice for surviving victims. Public awareness of this sinister chapter in North Carolina’s history is due partly to the research of Johanna Schoen, who, as a graduate student at UNC, was granted access to the previously sealed records of the NC Board of Eugenics. Schoen’s research led to further investigation and a series of articles by the Winston-Salem Journal. Her research also led to her own book, Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare. Schoen is quoted in the Indy article, but I wanted to give her a chance to speak more fully about what this new step means–for both the victims and the state. Here is her response. –ellen

North Carolina is to be commended for establishing the N.C. Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation to compensate the victims of the state’s sterilization program.  Between 1929 and 1975, the state ordered the sterilization of more than 7,600 people.  More than 7,000 were actually sterilized.  Eighty-four percent of these were women.  One-third of those sterilized were minors at the time of their sterilization, most of them victims of rape or incest.

State-ordered sterilizations constitute a flagrant violation of human rights.  The North Carolina sterilization program was housed under the Department of Public Welfare, its policies carried out by state employees, public health nurses, social workers, and the North Carolina Eugenics Board, which authorized the sterilizations.  On the board sat the Commissioner of Public Welfare, the Secretary of the State Board of Health, the Chief Medical Officers of the State Hospital at Raleigh and of an institution of the feebleminded or insane, and the State Attorney General.

While the law required that those sterilized consent to the operation, procedural irregularities plagued the program during its operation and made this legal safeguard all but meaningless.  A lack of oversight on the county level meant that some social workers sterilized their entire caseload.  Many misrepresented the nature of the procedure when seeking consent from sterilization candidates, telling them that the surgery could easily be reversed.  Others threatened to withdraw welfare payments if clients did not agree to their own sterilization or that of a family member, or asked for the consent of relatives who lacked the legal authority to give such consent.

Board members, too, contributed to this wrongdoing.  They rarely ever met sterilization candidates in person.  Instead, they based their decision on a sterilization candidate’s file, although they hardly ever read the entire file.  If they did personally meet a sterilization candidate, they distorted the truth about the sterilization program and intimidated those who voiced doubts or disagreement.  They disregarded evidence that patients had been coerced to give consent and ignored information that sterilization candidates were merely victims of unwanted sexual attention.  Finally, they frequently voted on petitions that they themselves had submitted as the heads of state hospitals and institutions.

Unfortunately, North Carolina does not stand out for committing such human rights violations – many other states had similar programs.  Fortunately, however, the state does stand out for its willingness to confront this past.  While other states have issued apologies for their state sterilization programs and some have put up historical markers, few have discussed the integration of this story into its educational curriculum and none have considered the payment of restitution to sterilization victims.  We should commend North Carolina for its courage to confront this past and willingness to address the wrongs done.  And we should challenge the state to follow through on its promise of restitution before it is too late.

Finally, we should learn from history.  Many people continue to believe that women should not have children while they receive public assistance. As we think about these problems, we need to remember the legacy of state sterilization programs. We have to prevent family planning policies that force women to use any form of birth control against their will. And we have to ensure that all have access to education about birth control, sterilization, and abortion regardless of their race, class, age, and marital status. Finally, we have to understand that women and men have the right to decide to use or not to use such services, even if we disagree with their decision. Rights are only as strong as our willingness to tolerate the decisions of others. A full acknowledgment of the suffering of the women and men sterilized under the auspices of the North Carolina Eugenics Board must include a spirited defense of their reproductive rights.

Johanna Schoen
University of Iowa
author of Choice and Coercion