Sterilizing the Sick, Poor to Cut Welfare Costs: North Carolina's History of Eugenics

PHOTO: Elaine Riddick
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Poor, a victim of child molestation and pregnant from rape, young Elaine Riddick went into a North Carolina hospital in 1968 to give birth to her son. Though she wouldn't know it until years later, she would leave the hospital robbed of the ability to ever bear children again.

On top of the poverty, abuse, and neglect that marked her childhood, Riddick had the misfortune of becoming the target of the North Carolina eugenics board, a 5-person state committee responsible for ordering the sterilization of thousands of individuals in the name of social welfare during the last century.

Deemed "promiscuous" and "feebleminded" by a social worker at the hospital, Riddick, who came from a black family on welfare, was recommended to the state for sterilization shortly after arriving. Riddick's illiterate grandmother, told that they were doing a "procedure" that was necessary to help the young girl, signed the sterilization papers with an "X". The state authorized and paid for the procedure, and without her consent or even her knowledge, Riddick was sterilized shortly after giving birth. She was 14-year-old.

"They didn't have permission from me because I was too young and my grandmother didn't understand what was going on," Riddick, now 57, tells ABC News. "They said I was feebleminded, they said I would never be able to do anything for myself. I was a little bitty kid and they cut me open like a hog."

"I was raped twice," she says, "once by the perpetrator and once by the state of North Carolina."

Riddick is one of over 7,600 women, men, and children who were sterilized by choice, coercion, or most often, without consent during the North Carolina sterilization program's 45-year reign. At some point in the century, more than half of the states in the U.S. had similar programs that allowed for the sterilization of those the government deemed unfit to procreate.

When most programs began in the early 1930s, this usually meant those in institutions for mental illness or mental retardation, but over the decades criminals, the blind, the deaf, the disabled, alcoholics, those with epilepsy, and ultimately the rural poor on welfare would fall under the umbrella of "unfit to procreate."

In all, 65,000 Americans were sterilized before the last program was shut down in the early 1980s.

Though detailed, often meticulous records of these sterilizations survive in state archives, America's flirtation with selective sterilization has for the most part been a buried chapter in our nation's history.

"Eugenics in the U.S. is something that's still not nationally known. People associate it with Nazis; they don't realize that the U.S. did it too," says Rebecca Kluchin, an assistant professor of History at California State University, Sacramento who specializes in the U.S. eugenics programs.

Only seven of the 33 states who ran such programs have even publicly acknowledged or apologized to victims of sterilization. Only North Carolina, home to the third most prolific and arguably the most racist sterilization program in the nation, has recently made moves to compensate its victims.

In 2010, Gov. Bev Berdue established the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, whose mission is to determine proper compensation for those still suffering from the state's mistakes. Fewer than 2,000 sterilization victims are estimated to still be alive today.

A sum of $20,000 to $50,000 compensation per living victim was floated in preliminary recommendations issued by the foundation's task force Monday.

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