January 10, 2012.
In the first instance of a state moving to compensate victims of forced sterilization, a gubernatorial panel in North Carolina voted Tuesday to pay victims of a state eugenics program that forcibly sterilized more than 7,500 people.
The Governor's Eugenics Compensation Task Force, established by Gov. Beverly Perdue in March, voted to pay verified victims $50,000. The payments must still be approved by the Legislature.
At least seven of 33 states that carried out eugenics programs have acknowledged or apologized for the policies, but North Carolina is the first to propose paying compensation. The state's forced-sterilization program, designed to weed out the mentally disabled, criminals and other "undesirables," was in effect from 1929 to 1974. North Carolina formally shut down its discredited Eugenics Board in 1977.
The rate of sterilizations in North Carolina picked up after World War II despite unfavorable comparisons to Nazi eugenics, and peaked in the 1950s. The task force has estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 sterilization victims are still alive. The state has verified 72 victims.
Impoverished or uneducated African Americans were victimized by many eugenics programs, especially in the South. But the task force found that, although many victims of the North Carolina program were African Americans, the number of Caucasians who were sterilized was even higher.
If the payments are approved, victims would have three years to apply for compensation.
The sterilizations were supervised by a state Eugenics Board that included the chief medical officers of the state hospital and the Institution for the Feeble-Minded, the state attorney general and the secretary of the state board of health. Of the 7,528 documented cases of forced sterilization, nearly 3,000 were carried out in the 1950s and more than 1,600 between 1960 and 1968.
Involuntary-sterilization laws remained on the books in North Carolina until 2003, the task force reported.
The five-member task force is made up of a former judge and journalist, a historian, a physician and a lawyer.
Task force Chairwoman Laura Gerald told the Associated Press that the panel has sought to strike a balance between victims’ rights and political realities.
"Compensation has been on the table now for nearly 10 years, but the state has lacked the political will to do anything other than offer an apology," Gerald said.
*****Comment: This decision, if sanctioned by the legislature, is an important step toward reaching back and bringing a measure of restorative justice.
The eugenics movement in the US was racist and classist to the core. And, this movement is where the pressure to legalize abortion started - the original impulse, in part, was to remove certain kinds of genetics from the population. (See Margaret Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood)
That aside, the position taken by the North Carolina panel illustrates that the past is never just in the past and that confrontation is important if we are to make sense of what happened.
The fact that the panel is suggesting a monetary reparation is also significant even if the amount of money may seem paltry.
A mere apology is not enough, reparation is important to show goodwill.
It will be interesting to see where this decision goes. The political will is there, for now, and that is very important to move beyond the impasse.
At the very least, forced sterilizations is being talked about and confronted.
Here in South Africa there were forced sterilizations under apartheid. I have also written here of government officials who would administer birth control injections to young girls on the streets of black townships.
We have not even conceptualized a confrontation with that ugly past. In large part due to ignorance but also because the political will is seriously lacking.
I am reminded that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did not even look into sexual assault as a political crime. Apartheid abuses against women were not even discussed.
Makes me wonder if there are even human rights organizations in South Africa who are pursuing reparations against the state for institutionalized rape and sexual abuse.
It seems reasonable to me that such lawsuits and political actions be directed at the present government since South Africa does not represent an abrogation of the past - South Africa merely transitioned from apartheid and the state now is representative of succession.
In this context, the state now is responsible for what happened in the past and that includes reparations for human rights abuses under apartheid.