RALEIGH — State Sen. Don East of Pilot Mountain regrets that thousands of North Carolinians, including at least 82 people from Surry County, fell victim to involuntary sterilization — but believes it doesn’t make sense to now compensate those still living.
“I just don’t think that you can rewrite history,” East explained Tuesday in a telephone interview from Raleigh, where the N.C. Senate has decided to block a $50,000 payment to each surviving victim of a statewide eugenics program. It operated in all 100 counties from 1929 to 1974, with sterilizations occurring among 7,600 people who were considered unworthy of procreation for various reasons.
The program tended to target poor and uneducated minorities, as well as persons with physical and mental disabilities.
“Am I glad that it happened?” East added of the large-scale sterilizations. “No, I wish it had not happened. But again, it’s a part of history, just like slavery is a part of history.” The senator said the taking of Native-American lands by the white man belongs on the same list.
But East believes compensating the victims today would not undo what happened to them years ago.
“It doesn’t change anything — if they’re sterile, they’re still sterile,” said the Republican who represents Surry, Stokes, Yadkin and Alleghany counties in the Legislature.
Had the Senate acted favorably in recent days, North Carolina would have been the first state to pay eugenics victims.
The state House of Representatives voted earlier this month in favor of the eugenics-compensation proposal. Although House members approved the measure by a wide margin, local Rep. Sarah Stevens voted against its final version.
Stevens, of Mount Airy, listed several reasons Tuesday for not supporting the payments. “Other states have not done it,” she said of one. In addition, $20,000 was originally sought for each victim, which somehow got increased to $50,000 during the process. “I think that was sort of greedy,” the representative said. “It got kind of convoluted there at the end.”
The question of “who else gets paid?” also was a consideration for Stevens.
Then after the plan was addressed by the state Senate last week, that body declined to support it — which would have included earmarking $10 million in the state budget to pay the compensation of $50,000 per survivor.
“The state…is in dire financial straits,” Sen. East said Tuesday of the budgetary considerations accompanying the reality of not being able to reverse the harm caused by sterilization. The Surry lawmaker said the General Assembly has had to “cobble together” a spending plan that provides funding for public education and the Medicaid program, which takes up 80 percent of available revenues.
That leaves only 20 percent for other programs. “Now if you add some more expenses to it,” East said, “somebody is going to have to give somewhere.”
Legislators must be careful about which proposals get funded given the tight budget, according to East. “I just don’t think this is the right issue to drop money into right now,” he said of compensating sterilization victims.
The local senator believes that if such payments are necessary, the expense should have been taken on years ago when the state, and its government, were in better shape financially.
Gov. Bev Perdue had led the call for the lump-sum payments, which was reflected in the favorable House vote.
Surry Victims Verified
Up to 1,800 victims of the sterilization program are estimated to still be living, and 146 have been verified so far, according to the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. Those verifications are based on the county of residence listed on sterilization petitions and their matches to records of the N.C. Eugenics Board, which operated one of the nation’s most-active programs of its kind.
That five-member group made decisions on sterilizing people in the name of social welfare. North Carolina was among the more than half of U.S. states operating such programs at some point during the 20th century, with entire families sterilized in some cases.
A statewide breakdown for the peak years of the program in North Carolina, July 1946 to June 1968, shows Surry County tied for 16th among the 100 counties in number of residents sterilized. Of the 82 people involved, four have been verified as victims.
Due to the budget agreement to exclude state funding for compensating victims of the state’s former Eugenics Board program, the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation is expected to shut down at the end of this month.
A 58-year-old African-American woman who has become a face for those victimized became pregnant after being raped at age 14 and was sterilized unknowingly when she was hospitalized to give birth. The woman, whose family was on welfare, learned years later that she had been classified as “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous.”
Her illiterate grandmother, who consented to the procedure by signing an “X” on a form, had been told that it was necessary to help the girl.
An attorney for that victim reportedly plans to file a class-action lawsuit seeking compensation from North Carolina.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.