Surry County’s two representatives in the General Assembly — Sen. Don East and Rep. Sarah Stevens — both voted against a measure that would have compensated confirmed victims of the state’s eugenics program that forcibly sterilized more than 7,000 people.
The program, which ran from 1929 until 1974, was aimed primarily at sterilizing those deemed to be unsuitable for raising children — primarily those who were poor and uneducated, as well as those who might have some physical or mental disabilities.
In so doing, North Carolina, and other states, deprived some of its residents of one of their most basic rights — that of giving birth and raising children, of creating a family. And, as so often is the case, it was those most in need of government protection who were victimized by their government.
The debate over compensating those victims who are still living has been heated at times, but a bill eventually made its way to the General Assembly that called for each confirmed victim to be paid $50,000.
Stevens was in the minority in the House, casting her vote against the bill that eventually passed. East also opposed the measure, and was joined by a majority of his colleague in the Senate.
East this week explained his vote, by saying the compensation does nothing to change history, that the eugenics program, as awful as it was, happened and there’s nothing which can be done about it today. He also pointed out that the compensation program could cost the state upwards of $10 million at a time when there is not a spare $10 million in the budget.
Stevens explained her opposition by stating no other state which practiced a eugenics program has voted to compensate its victims, and she thought there was a bit of greed involved, given that the original compensation package called for $20,000 per victim.
We find fault with both of Stevens’ arguments. First, North Carolina legislators should decide what they believe is right for North Carolina, regardless of what other states might do. Right is right, and if being the only one to go forward is the price for showing leadership on a particular issue, then so be it. If compensating victims is the right thing to do, then say so and move on. If it’s wrong, then say that and move on.
The idea that going from $20,000 to $50,000 shows evidence of greed is, quite frankly, appalling. We’re talking about people who had a basic right of individuals taken away from them, forcibly, and often times without their prior knowledge. How can anyone argue that some victim asking for $50,000 in compensation for having their life so radically and forever altered is greedy?
East, however, does raise an interesting argument. At what point does a government, a modern society, have a responsibility to actively seek to compensate those harmed by their forefathers? Do taxpayers today have a responsibility to pay to compensate victims of a practice which occurred before many of those taxpayers were even born?
Unfortunately, it is a question that has no good answer. Yes, those victims deserve something — justice for what amounts to state-sponsored crimes against them, compensation, some form of closure. Yet, those in government today, those state residents who had nothing to do with the actions called eugenics, might have a hard time being the ones paying for the crimes of their forefathers. And understandably so.