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."

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"Bad case makes bad law" is an old legal saying. Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized for allegedly exhibiting the "defective" characteristics of feeble-mindedness (later disproven) and promiscuity (her out-of-wedlock pregnancy was the result of being raped by a member of her foster family, a matter never brought up in the trials). When Buck was freed from institutionalization, she married and remained so for 25 years until her husband died. She regretted not being able to have more children. Those who interviewed her for research later in life reported that she was of normal intelligence. She died in 1983 and was buried near the daughter whose short life had been the unwilling catalyst for so much human drama.

Involuntary sterilization programs were rooted in a eugenics movement based on Charles Darwin's principles of natural selection. Eugenics is defined as selective breeding of humans and animals in order to "rid the population of characteristics deemed unfit by those administering the practice." Steven Selden, author of Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America, explains that "the national eugenics movement was about altering the gene pool and eliminating people who spoke, looked, or behaved differently." This usually meant the disabled (as the National Holocaust Museum shows) and often the poor. In the early 20th century, eugenics was seen by public welfare agencies, nonprofit institutions, and state governments as a "solution" to poverty and illegitimacy. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger's eugenicist "Negro Project" is recognized as the model upon which Adolf Hitler built his "Final Solution." The horrors revealed in Nazi Germany naturally called into question what had seemed before to be a logical, scientific approach to eliminating a good portion of human suffering. After World War II, eugenics programs fell out of favor.

Surely, the desire to prevent suffering is good. But eugenics attempts to eliminate human suffering by eliminating humans who suffer. Yet, the severest human "disabilities" usually aren't the genetic kind, but are disabilities of character, mindset, and simple sin nature—the sort of things medicine will never be able to sterilize us from.

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Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould acknowledges that sterilization programs are evidence that "a popular, quasi-scientific idea can be a powerful tool for injustice." The irrefutable science of the past is but foolishness in the present. Yesterday's undisputed mandate is today's undisputed mistake. Just as the Scripture says, "There is a way that appears right, but in the end it leads to death" (Proverbs 14:12). The ill-founded eugenics movement demonstrates that "even the compassion of the wicked is cruel."

We should try to ease human suffering. But good solutions will never come from science that's divorced from compassion, from government agencies separate from real communities, or from an understanding of the human condition apart from the Creator of all life.