Elaine Riddick has suffered greatly, no doubt about it — as she described in her own words, “I was a little bitty kid and they cut me open like a hog.”
What Riddick was referring to was a procedure undertaken to sterilize her some 44 years ago when she was a 14-year-old African-American girl from a poor family in eastern North Carolina.
Although the woman now in her late 50s seems articulate and intelligent, at that time she was labeled “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” under the auspices of an eugenics program that operated for much of the 20th century in our state.
Riddick had become pregnant after being raped at age 13, then when admitted to a hospital to give birth was sterilized without her knowledge. Her illiterate grandmother signed consent papers with an “X” after being told the procedure was needed to help the young teen.
As the years passed, Riddick was unaware the sterilization had occurred, until age 19 when she was married and trying to conceive. A doctor advised the woman that she had been “butchered.”
Elaine Riddick was not alone. There are other, nameless individuals who were impacted by North Carolina’s eugenics program that ran from 1929 to 1974 — nearly 8,000 in all. More than half of U.S. states had such programs, resulting in 65,000 people being sterilized.
When you examine the history, sterilization was not unlike Nazi Germany efforts to ensure a so-called master race, or other acts conceived by vicious regimes to achieve ethnic cleansing.
The N.C. Eugenics Board, a five-member panel, made decisions on whether someone should be sterilized. Its main concern originally seemed to be those who were mentally ill or mentally retarded and living in institutions where unchecked sexual behavior could lead to pregnancies and other negative consequences. Even though it seems barbaric today, the initial purpose of the sterilization program was somewhat well-intended.
Unfortunately, in some states, this was expanded as time passed to include criminals, the blind, the deaf, the disabled, alcoholics, sufferers of epilepsy and people who were guilty of nothing except being poor in a rural area.
Eugenics panels basically wielded awesome power over people they deemed unfit to reproduce, and it is hard to believe this practice was in effect as little as 38 years ago in North Carolina.
But even when you acknowledge the injustice to individuals such as Elaine Riddick, I’m not sure that compensating them financially is good public policy. The N.C. Senate has declined to do just that by opting not to include funds in the state budget to give $50,000 to each confirmed living victim of the eugenics program.
Surry’s County’s Senate member, Don East of Pilot Mountain, made some good points about this the other day when explaining his position on not favoring such compensation.
Even if the victims were paid, it would not erase what happened to them, East reasoned. Although I personally don’t believe giving $1 million to each would be adequate compensation, I see the logic in East’s position regarding the $50,000 payments.
Plus, as he pointed out, eugenics victims aren’t the only group that has suffered from a government-sanctioned activity.
Slavery is certainly one example of this, and also the taking of land from Native Americans, the senator said. I would add to that the Holocaust of World War II when millions of Jews were systematically executed and subjected to evil experiments.
Many other cases have occurred since the dawn of civilization. You can say that one thing mankind has been consistently good at is creating various classes of victims through war, oppression or sheer ignorance.
So when it comes to paying victims, there’s probably not enough money to go around for all the different minority, religious and ethnic groups that have been affected in different ways. This would be particularly unwieldy in an age when trying to extract money from the government for various reasons has become a way of life for certain individuals.
“I just don’t think that you can rewrite history,” Sen. East said earlier this week concerning how payments wouldn’t really change anything.
But East’s comment got me to thinking: What if you COULD change history?
How great it would be to go back to 1963 and tell President Kennedy not to ride in an open limousine that November day in Dallas.
Or, what if the crew of the Titanic could be warned to steer clear of that iceberg?
Preventing the 9/11 attacks also would be on my “Things in history that I’d like to change” list.
All this makes for great fantasy, but unfortunately there is the simple reality that people haven’t always been treated with the dignity, compassion and understanding human beings deserve. And they’re still not in many ways.
Short of making payments to victims at taxpayer expense in a tough economy, the best way to address situations such as the eugenics program is to make sure they never, ever happen again.
Tom Joyce is a reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or email@example.com.