In a move that has been welcomed with bipartisan support, Gov. Pat McCrory allocated $10 million in his two-year budget proposal to compensate the living victims of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board program.
From 1929 to 1974, 7,600 people in North Carolina were involuntarily sterilized under the state Eugenics Board’s authority, according to the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. As of 2010, the State Center for Health Statistics estimated that as many as 2,944 victims could still be alive; only 176 living victims from North Carolina have been confirmed.
McCrory’s proposal would pay each victim $50,000 in compensation; an additional $124,000 is allocated to the foundation for counseling and other services to victims.
The N.C. Legislature formed the Eugenics Board in 1933 with the purpose of sterilizing those deemed “mentally defective or feeble-minded or otherwise unfit to reproduce.”
“Blinded by the illusions of reducing poverty, eliminating mental illness and saving taxpayers money, people from all walks of life supported this second wave of eugenics,” wrote Kevin Begos in an extensive series for INDY Week on the history of eugenics programs in the United States after World War II. (In 2011, Lara Torgensen also covered the victims’ stories for the INDY.)
North Carolina’s eugenics programs had widespread support, and the state moved quickly to targeting people in the general population, as opposed to those living in institutions, for sterilization.
The General Assembly repealed laws authorizing the existence of the Eugenics Board in 1977, but it took another 25 years for legislators to repeal involuntary sterilization laws entirely. That’s when questions about victims’ compensation began to emerge.
“This has been a process that has been going on since 2003,” said state Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, in reference to then-Gov. Mike Easley’s official apology to sterilization victims. Easley also created a committee to make recommendations about how to compensate victims of the Eugenics Board program. It wasn’t until two years after Gov. Bev Perdue took office, in 2010, that the committee’s recommendations were revisited; Perdue issued an executive order creating the foundation.
But the Legislature has consistently postponed appropriating money for the victims. The foundation task force recommended that each sterilization victim be awarded $50,000, and last year, Perdue allocated $10.3 million in her annual budget to go toward victims’ compensation and foundation services. The House supported the proposal, but the bill died in the Republican-led Senate.
Given this history, the foundation is not optimistic about the funding, even with McCrory’s support. Tequila Peele, a processing administrator at the foundation, said, “We are not conducting interviews [with potential victims] at this time, but we do agree with the governor’s proposal.”
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said last year that the state didn’t have the money to compensate sterilization victims. More telling is the assertion from former state Sen. Chris Carney that “if we do something like this, you open up the door to other things the state did in its history. And some, I’m sure you’d agree, are worse than this.”
The measure is likely to pass the House again. House Bill 7, which calls for compensation for sterilization victims, has been filed. One of the bill’s four primary sponsors, House Speaker Thom Tillis, issued a statement regarding the budget, saying he is “especially glad to see the inclusion of the Eugenics Compensation Program.” The other three primary sponsors are Democratic Reps. Larry Hall of Durham and Susi Hamilton of Wilmington, and Apex Republican Paul Stam, who is also Speaker Pro Tem.
Senate approval remains uncertain. Berger has said the Senate Republican caucus hasn’t taken a position on the proposal yet but will give it consideration.
Sen. Parmon said that she will sponsor a bill this week that will be companion to the House bill for sterilization victims’ compensation. “Hopefully, this will be the year that we will do what’s right in North Carolina,” Parmon said. “Victims are passing away as we deliberate in the General Assembly. We have to do right by the people in North Carolina who were affected by these horrible laws.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Better late than never.”