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Victims speak out about North Carolina sterilization program, which targeted women, young girls and blacks

By Michelle Kessel and Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Elaine Riddick was 13 years old when she got pregnant after being raped by a neighbor in Winfall, N.C., in 1967.  The state ordered that immediately after giving birth, she should be sterilized.  Doctors cut and tied off her fallopian tubes.

“I have to carry these scars with me.  I have to live with this for the rest of my life,” she said. 

Riddick was never told what was happening.  “Got to the hospital and they put me in a room and that’s all I remember, that’s all I remember,” she said.  “When I woke up, I woke up with bandages on my stomach.”

Riddick’s records reveal that a five-person state eugenics board in Raleigh had approved a recommendation that she be sterilized. The records label Riddick as “feebleminded” and “promiscuous.” They said her schoolwork was poor and that she “does not get along well with others.”

“I was raped by a perpetrator [who was never charged] and then I was raped by the state of North Carolina.  They took something from me both times,” she said.  “The state of North Carolina, they took something so dearly from me, something that was God given.”


It wouldn’t be until Riddick was 19, married and wanting more children, that she’d learn she was incapable of having any more babies. A doctor in New York where she was living at the time told her that she’d been sterilized.

“Butchered.  The doctor used that word…  I didn’t understand what she meant when she said I had been butchered,” Riddick said.

North Carolina was one of 31 states to have a government run eugenics program.  By the 1960s, tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized as a result of these programs. 

Eugenics was a scientific theory that grew in popularity during the 1920s.  Eugenicists believed that poverty, promiscuity and alcoholism were traits that were inherited.  To eliminate those society ills and improve society’s gene pool, proponents of the theory argued that those that exhibited the traits should be sterilized.  Some of America’s wealthiest citizens of the time were eugenicists including Dr. Clarence Gamble of the Procter and Gamble fortune and James Hanes of the hosiery company.  Hanes helped found the Human Betterment League which promoted the cause of eugenicists. 

It began as a way to control welfare spending on poor white women and men, but over time, North Carolina shifted focus, targeting more women and more blacks than whites.  A third of the sterilizations performed in North Carolina were done on girls under the age of 18.  Some were as young as nine years old.

For the past eight years, North Carolina lawmakers have been working to find a way to compensate those involuntarily sterilized in the state between 1929 and 1974. During that time period, 7,600 people were sterilized in North Carolina.  Of those who were sterilized, 85 percent of the victims were female and 40 percent were non-white.  

“You can’t rewind a watch or rewrite history.  You just have to go forward and that’s what we’re trying to do in North Carolina,” said Governor Beverly Perdue in an exclusive interview with NBC News.

While North Carolina’s eugenics board was disbanded in 1977, the law allowing involuntary sterilization wasn’t officially repealed until 2003. In 2002, the state issued an apology to those who had been sterilized, but the victims have yet to receive any financial compensation, medical care or counseling from the state. Since 2003, three task forces have been created to determine a way to compensate the victims.  Officials estimate that as many as 2,000 victims are still alive.

Riddick was one of several victims to speak at a public hearing this summer. It was the first time that many survivors had told their stories publicly and that others heard of North Carolina’s tarnished past.

“To think about folks who went in…and their doctor told them this was birth control and they were sterilized…the folks who didn’t have the capacity to make the decisions, the uninformed consent,” said Perdue.  “Those types of stories aren’t good for America and I can’t allow for this period in history to be forgotten, that’s why this work is important.”

Only 48 victims have been matched with their records, something necessary for them to eventually be compensated.  State Representative Larry Womble has been advocating for the survivors of the state’s sterilization program for nearly 10 years. He helped fight for the repeal of the state’s law.

Womble said that if the government is “powerful enough to perpetrate this on this society, they ought to be responsible, step up to the plate and compensate.”

In August, a task force created by Gov. Perdue recommended that the victims be compensated, but they were unsure how much to award the victims. Previous numbers pondered range between $20,000 and $50,000. The task force also recommended mental health services for living victims and a traveling museum exhibit about North Carolina’s eugenics program.

Perdue said it’s a challenge to determine how much money each victim should be given.

“From my perspective, and as a woman, and as the governor of this state, this is not about the money.  There isn’t enough money in the world to pay these people for what has been done to them, but money is part of the equation,” she said. 

Riddick once sued North Carolina for a million dollars.  Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, but the court declined to hear the case.  “I would like for the state of North Carolina to right what they wronged with me,” she said.

Some victims and their advocates have questioned whether North Carolina is procrastinating in compensating them, hoping they’ll die before a solution is reached. “It’s an ugly chapter in North Carolina’s book, we have a wonderful book, but there’s an ugly chapter,” Womble said. “We must step up to the plate and we must realize and take responsibility.”

Perdue, for her part, said that she is committed to helping the victims.

“I want this solved on my watch.  I want there to be completion.  I want the whole discussion to end and there be action for these folks.  There is nobody in North Carolina who is waiting for anybody to die,” Gov. Perdue said.

Despite the state social workers who declared Riddick was “mentally retarded” and “promiscuous”, she went to college and raised the son born moments before she was sterilized.  Her son is devoted to his mother and a successful entrepreneur.

Elaine is proud of her achievements.

“I don’t know where I would be if I listened to the state of North Carolina,” she said.

 

Editor's note: If you think you or someone you know was a victim of North Carolina's eugenics program or for more information about the ongoing efforts to compensate the victims, visit the website for the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation: http://www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov/