Eugenics programs gained popularity in the U.S. and other countries in the early 1900s but most abandoned those efforts after World War II because of the association with Nazi Germany's program aimed at racial purity. However, North Carolina expanded its program, with sterilizations peaking in the 1950s and early 1960s. About 70 percent of the state's 7,600 sterilizations occurred after the war, state figures show.
Overt rationalization for the programs ranged from protecting the potential offspring of mentally disabled parents to improving the overall health and intellectual competence of the human race. Before the atrocities of World War II, it was seen by many — both blacks and whites — as a legitimate effort to improve society.
In 1968, Elaine Riddick was like many others who were sterilized: poor, black and female.
Now living in Atlanta, Riddick plans to drive to Raleigh to tell the task force about her sterilization at age 14 following a rape. She said her grandmother gave the state permission for the procedure.
“My grandmother was worried about me. I didn't blame her,” Riddick said.
Yet she said it was a traumatic experience that led to years of depression and physical problems. Riddick wants financial compensation from the state to pay for doctor bills and medicine.
Researchers estimate more than 60,000 people nationwide were sterilized during the 20th century as part of government programs. Even in states without sterilization laws, the procedures still occurred on local or informal levels. That means the real number could be 100,000 or higher, Lombardo said.
Among the 33 states with eugenics programs, North Carolina's was unique. The state had the most open-ended law in the country, allowing doctors and social workers to refer people living at home to the state Eugenics Board for possible sterilization. In every other state, Lombardo said, people had to be either institutionalized or jailed before they could be sterilized.
According to research done by University of Vermont professor Lutz Kaelber, North Carolina averaged about 300 sterilizations per year between 1950 and 1963.
It's not totally clear why support for sterilizations remained strong in North Carolina as it declined in nearly every other state. The most obvious explanation is the influence of the Winston-Salem-based Human Betterment League, Fuller Cooper said. The nonprofit group aimed at social reform folded in 1988 but, at its peak, its members had the passion and financial backing needed to shape public policy, she said.
The North Carolina branch was organized by several wealthy and prominent citizens, including textile magnate James Hanes and tobacco czar R.J. Reynolds. The group's members drummed up support for sterilization through direct mail campaigns and other methods.
At least seven states have offered formal apologies for involuntary sterilizations, including North Carolina in 2001, when then-Gov. Mike Easley also appointed an initial task force to study the issue. But only North Carolina has so far set up a process to compensate individual victims. And with the state legislature struggling to close a budget gap, questions of fairness may be pushed aside by simple economics.
There's widespread agreement that the roughly 2,944 living victims of state-sponsored sterilization should be given money or other types of assistance but it remains to be determined whether the state's compensation will extend to family members or individuals sterilized by local health departments or private hospitals that were not part of the state program.