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

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Is Healing Possible?

On June 30 of this year, 37 years after the North Carolina eugenics board was disbanded, victims and their loved ones gather in a conference room in Raleigh, N.C. to share their stores. The N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation Task Force will hear their stories, en masse, for two and half hours, in hopes of determining what can be done today to help heal the wounds of the past.

One after another, stories of deception, coercion and mistreatment unravel from those speaking at the podium. Some were sterilized without their knowledge, others against their will, still others were told the procedure was reversible or that they would not continue to receive welfare assistance unless they cooperated.

Deborah Chesson delivers a letter on behalf of her mother, Nial Ramirez, who was sterilized after having her at age 17: "I was told if I had more children that my family would no longer be receiving public assistance." A social worker convinced Ramirez' mother to sign, not realizing she was setting her daughter up to be "sterilized like some unwanted animal." After the procedure, Ramirez writes, "My spirit died. I no longer felt complete as a human."

Karen Beck, 52, speaks on behalf of her grandmother and great aunt, Dottie and Flossie Bates, both of whom were sterilized in the 1930s. Beck's grandmother, Flossie, had been a victim of rape at age 16 and had become pregnant with Beck's mother. After giving birth, she was told she needed an appendectomy, but was instead sterilized without her knowledge or consent. Doctors told her afterward that she was "too small to have children." It wasn't until decades later that the family discovered the truth -- that the state had arranged to have her sterilized.

"Why her?" Beck relayed to ABC News after the Task Force meeting. "Her files reads, 'Flossie's morals are questionable,'" Beck says. The ever-present diagnosis of "feebleminded" was also in there, as was a notation that the Bates' were on welfare.

That particular narrative plays out again and again in the Eugenics Board records -- young women on welfare, the victims of rape, would be "diagnosed" as promiscuous and feebleminded when they came in to give birth and would be sterilized before being sent home with the baby.

Elaine Riddick, who knows this story too well, also shares her story with the Task Force. Following her sterilization she suffered years of undiagnosed gynecological problems -- excessive bleeding, pain, fainting from loss of blood. It wasn't until she was 19 and married that a doctor finally examined her and told her she had been "butchered" during the sterilization she didn't even know she had had. Four surgeries to attempt to fix the damage were unsuccessful and she eventually needed a full hysterectomy.

Riddick has been the strongest victim voice over the years -- she sued the state of North Carolina in 1979, but lost. She has been speaking out, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, against the North Carolina sterilization program for decades.

Listening to Riddick tell her story -- a story she has told again and again over the years as she continues her "mission from God" to see justice done for the victims of sterilization -- you can hear in her voice that what haunts her today goes beyond what was done to her physical body.

It's a similar chord that strikes in all the victims stories -- it's not just the act of the sterilization, it is the implications of it: that the state decided their progeny were unwanted, that, in effect, they were unwanted.

As if still trying to clear her name, Riddick, who has since put herself through college, repeats, sobbing: "They made a mistake. I'm not feeble-minded. I was never feeble-minded."

"They slandered me, they ridiculed and harassed me," Riddick tells the Task Force. "They cut me open. What do you think I'm worth? The kids I did not have, could not have, what are they worth? What is my son worth?"

The victims of sterilization "were treated like rats in a lab," Chesson adds. "These days, even the rats have someone to speak for them. What has been said for the victims of sterilization? They mean nothing."

The N.C.Sterilization Victims Foundation can be reached by their toll-free hotline, 1-877-550-6013, or on their website: www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov.

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