Learn more about North Carolina’s eugenics program.

Elaine Riddick was 14 when she was sterilized by the state of North Carolina, immediately following the birth, by cesarean section, of a son, her only child. Although she scored above the state’s IQ threshold of 75, the five-person Eugenics Board approved the recommendation for her sterilization, labeling Riddick “feebleminded” and “promiscuous” and noting that her schoolwork was poor and that she did not get along well with others.

For almost 30 years, she has sought compensation for this injury. She was among the first to bring a civil case against the state, a case she lost, in the 1970s, and she has been one of the most outspoken sterilization victims, appearing on NBC’s Rock Center and on Al Jazeera. And yet she acknowledges that no amount of money can ever repair the damage the state did to her. “You cannot put a price tag on motherhood,” Riddick said.

What would she have given to have more children? “I would have given up my life. My whole life.”

If monetary compensation$10 million to be divided among the fewer than 3,000 living victims in 2015will not address the wrongs done to the 7,600 people sterilized by the state of North Carolina, then what is the point of adding millions of dollars to the budget of a state with a struggling economy? The answer may lie with the legal theory of transitional justice, a method of confronting legacies of human rights abuses through criminal prosecution, truth commissions, reparations and institutional reform.

Transitional justice addresses the primary objections of those resistant to expensive, government-funded programs, namely that financial compensation will not make victims whole again, and taxpayers should not have to pay for something they did not do. The practice can be traced back to the Nuremberg Trials, and more recent examples include the truth commissions in South Africa, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

Though the genocide and war crimes investigated by those trials and commissions may seem far removed from the experiences of those targeted by North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, forced sterilization is in fact a violation of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article XVI states: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. […] The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” According to the United Nations, measures disrupting the reproductive acts of a group can also be considered genocide.

David Gray, a University of Maryland law professor, has written that transitional justice is not a matter of “ordinary justice.” It is not about making victims whole again, as in tort law (for instance in the case of genocide, nothing will do that), or about the assignment of blame for past wrongs. Gray says transitional justice is “Janus-faced,” ideally addressing both “an abusive past and a future committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”

Monetary compensation does not seek to restore the victims to their earlier conditions but to help correct the status injustice they experienced, and also to establish a “pre-commitment” from the state that the wrong they experienced will never happen again. According to Gray, the cost is best borne by the state, even if those in power were not involved or even alive during the time of the abuses, as an expression of that commitment. “‘I didn’t do it’ is a non sequitur when the fundamental question is ‘How do we make it right?’”

I asked Gray how North Carolina could both recognize the state’s abusive past and ensure that it never happens again.

His first suggestion was a public, accessible archive of documents related to the program (one already exists online, but is not comprehensive). “That way,” he said, “there can never be a dispute about what happened.”

In addition to the archive, he suggested a public display or monument that would not only provide recognition to those who were sterilized, but also would challenge the public to ask themselves, as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., challenges its visitors, What would I have done? This lines up with the recommendations of North Carolina’s task force to create both permanent and traveling exhibits, as well as an ongoing oral history project to “tell the full story of eugenics in North Carolina.”

Gray differed with the task force appointed in 2010 by then-Gov. Beverly Perdue, however, in how to approach compensation. Instead of awarding each victim the same amount, he suggested a fund administrator be retained to listen to each victim’s story and determine an amount based on individual experience, including physical and emotional suffering. This approach would likely result in payments roughly equivalent to the $50,000 proposed, but individualized approaches are often more palatable to detractors, said Gray. “There’s a difference between equality and uniformity. You’re recognizing the wrong, while compensating the harm.”

Though there is a danger that victims would feel divided by such an approach, one potential benefit to Gray’s suggestion would be the opportunity for all victims to have their stories heard, if not publicly, then privately. This could have a therapeutic effect on many, says psychotherapist Marni Rosner.

“Many shamed and traumatized people rarely tell their story for fear of being shamed and traumatized again, or receiving yet another unhelpful response. It’s possible that some have never had the opportunity to tell their story, from beginning to end, without interruption, to someone that is truly interested and listening attentively. This can be extremely cathartic,” she says. When an empathic witness hears the story of traumas, according to Rosner, something shifts. The brain is rewired to make room for a new, non-shaming response.

Riddick, who has told her story again and again to audiences large and small, local and international, puts it more simply: “Through talking, I starting shedding off pieces of my shame. I had to get rid of all that shame if I wanted to live.”

The word “sterile” has two meanings: free from germs or contaminants; and fruitless, or unable to produce offspring. Using outdated, scientifically dubious ideas, the eugenics program in North Carolina conflated these two definitions. It sought to cleanse the state of the contamination of poverty, disability and mental illness by surgically preventing thousands of men, women and children from ever having biological children. It happened in every one of the state’s 100 counties: to men and women; to blacks, whites and Native Americans; to those who already had offspring and to those who had not yet entered puberty. For some, it took years to accept that their sterilizations were permanent. Others bore the bitter understanding immediately, and thought of it daily.

All of the victims who testified in 2011 before the Task Force to Determine the Method of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board confronted painful, often shameful memories to speak before strangers, on the good-faith assumption that their words would have an impact. They would finally receive official recognition and the assurance that nothing like this would ever happen again in their state. Though they could never be made whole, they would receive financial support that would make some kind of difference in their lives.

By 2013, when the legislature again took up the question of compensation, two things had happened. The state included brief language about the eugenics program in the revised American History and Grade 8 Social Studies curriculum. And in 2009, it erected a new historical marker near the site in Raleigh where the Eugenics Board once met. The marker looks similar to the hundreds of other silver-and-black signs commemorating presidential visits, significant birthplaces and Revolutionary War battles across the state. It reads:

State action led to the sterilization by choice or coercion of over 7,600 people, 1933–1973. Met after 1939 one block E.

The marker does not come close to the permanent and traveling memorials envisioned by the victims, who wanted something to teach people about injustice, someplace the public could visit to pay their respects, to grieve and to make amends. They have also yet to receive a dollar from the state.

Still, the most outspoken victims have experienced, on their own, what psychologists call “post-traumatic growth”: positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. Post-traumatic growth can be expressed in a number of ways: through new and satisfying relationships, through greater personal strength and vulnerability, or through creative outlets or other forms of self-expression.

Annie Buelin, who was sterilized at age 13 after she stopped attending school, experienced growth and regeneration through her faith. After suffering a long period of depression and spiritual isolation, she says, “I thought, I’m going to go somewhere to church.” A friend from the chicken plant where she worked invited Annie to hers. She went and even felt comfortable enough to ask the congregants to pray for an end to her depression.

That church was also where she met Woodrow. They sat near each other in the choir at an Easter Sunday evening service; Annie, an alto, noticed Woodrow’s strong bass singing voice, and was impressed when he sang a song he’d written himself. After church, Woodrow asked Annie if she’d like to have a poem. He borrowed a pen and paper and wrote one out for her, then added his phone number at the end.

Annie remembers talking with Woodrow for more than two hours the first time she called him, and his delight at hearing her voice: “He said he was walking the floor, waiting for me to call.” They dated for more than a year before they married, going to church functions and getting together with Woodrow’s large family for potlucks and holidays. “I told Woodrow right off when we talked about getting married,” she says. “He said, ‘That’s all right if you can’t have children. My children and grandchildren will make up for the ones you couldn’t have.’

“At Christmas, the house would be full of 12 or 15 children,” Annie says. “I cooked for everyone. We all just had a good time.” At church, Woodrow’s kids made Annie stand for the traditional Mother’s Day honoring.

Annie and Woodrow were married for 27 years; he died in 2012 at 89. She still lives in the converted tobacco-curing house he restored for her in Ararat, N.C., near where she grew up, and one of Woodrow’s sons and his wife live next door. The walls and tabletops of Annie’s home are filled with framed photographs of her late husband and his children and grandchildren, along with typed poems he wrote for Annie and her mother. He told her every day that he loved her.

Post-traumatic growth does not erase the experience of trauma, but allows people to integrate painful experiences into their life stories. Even after all the love she experienced with her husband and his family, Buelin still thinks about the children she didn’t have. “I know I would be a good mother,” she says. “I would work hard to raise them in church, to teach them right from wrong. I imagine myself sending them to school and [them] getting a good education. I would love them with everything in my power.”

Though Buelin follows the news and feels strongly that she should be compensated, her faith has helped her cope with the possibility that she might be disappointed. “To be a Christian, you can’t hate anybody,” she explains. “I forgive everybody that’s ever done me wrong. The Lord will take care of me. He loves me just as much as he loves you.”

Elaine Riddick’s growth has come through advocacy for her fellow sterilization victims and also, as with Buelin, through her faith. But it took her a while to get there.

“When I first started going to Raleigh, I was a mess,” she says, referring to the public hearings that began in 2010. “The more I went, the better I felt.”

Riddick speaks eloquently about her experience as a victim of North Carolina’s eugenics program, but can also cite statistics for programs in other states: California, Washington, Oregon. She has developed a particular interest in international reproductive rights abuses, including recent reports that the Israeli government had been giving Depo-Provera shots, without consent, to immigrant Ethiopian Jews. She has traveled to Virginia help a new organization begin the process of identifying victims in that state. Riddick, who is passionately pro-life, has also told her story at anti-abortion events around the country.

Her personal life, too, has improved. She is in a loving relationship, spends lots of time caring for nieces and nephews, and no longer feels jealous of pregnant women.

“I’m the type of person, if something bothers me, I have to fix it,” she says. She can now put her face next to a pregnant woman’s stomach to talk to the baby. “That was hard, but I did it.”

This story was adapted from the new e-book For the Public Good, by Belle Boggs © 2013, The New New South, a new digital publisher of long-form nonfiction in Chapel Hill.

Belle Boggs is the author of Mattaponi Queen, a collection of linked stories, and The Ugly Bear List, a novel, forthcoming from Graywolf Press. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Orion, Harper’s, The Oxford American, The Sun and other publications.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Extraordinary justice.”