When the State Took Away My Life: North Carolina Grapples with Sterilization Practice
The small, rural Virginia county where I live is home to an infamous court case that resulted in "one of the most chilling statements" ever issued by the U.S. Supreme Court. That case, Buck vs. Bell, unleashed decades of forced sterilization on those deemed "unfit" across the United States.
Last week a taskforce appointed by the State of North Carolina recommended reparation payments of $50,000 to each surviving victim of the state's involuntary sterilization program. The program ended in the 1970s, but incredibly, the laws remained on the books until 2003.
According to the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation website, "Between 1929 and 1974, an estimated 7,600 people were sterilized by choice, force or coercion under the authority of the N.C. Eugenics Board program." Those targeted for sterilization in hopes of ridding the population of "inferior" genes included people who were sick, epileptic, "feeble-minded," or otherwise disabled. At least 33 states had involuntary sterilization programs, but North Carolina was the only state that gave social workers the power to petition for the sterilization of members of the public, subject to approval by the state's Eugenics Board. Over 70 percent of North Carolina's victims were sterilized after 1945, when most other programs waned, and as of 2010, 2,944 victims were estimated to be living. Surviving victims will receive the reparation payment if the taskforce's recommendation is approved by the state legislature. The victims include:
• Naomi Schenck, who married at 16 and had a miscarriage at 17. At the hospital, her husband gave permission for a D and C, but doctors sterilized her instead. She never had children.
• Elaine Riddick (pictured above), who was just 13 when she got pregnant after being raped. After giving birth to her only child 43 years ago, Riddick was cut open "like a hog" and sterilized after her illiterate grandmother was "bullied" into approving the procedure.
• Nial Ramirez, who was sterilized after having her daughter at 17 because she was told that if she had more children, her family would no longer receive public assistance. Ramirez says she was told at the time the procedure was reversible, but that was not so.
It all began just a mile down the road from my house, when a local case (designed to be a test case) went all the way to the Supreme Court. From there Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a reputed civil libertarian, wrote the decision containing his notorious (and factually incorrect) declaration about Carrie Buck and her family that "three generations of imbeciles is enough." The case's central researcher, Paul A. Lombardo, says the ruling is historical, "not only because of its factual inaccuracy, but because Holmes seems to turn his back on his reputation as a libertarian and champion of human rights."