by Martha Waggoner
Associated Press Writer
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)— It’s a question that has not been answered before and doesn’t have an easy solution: How do you repay people for taking away their ability to have children?
North Carolina’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force is the first in the nation to tackle that question and is set to recommend how much to pay victims of forced sterilization, along with whether the victims’ descendants are eligible for the money.
“If we all agree that there is no amount that restore somebody’s loss of ability to procreate, then it’s understood that the ultimate figure is an attempt to put out an active apology instead of a verbal apology,” said task force member Demetrius Worley Berry, a Greensboro attorney. “This is not an attempt to compensate, repair or restore what happened years ago.”
State officials sterilized more than 7,600 people in North Carolina from 1929 to 1974 under eugenics programs, which at the time were aimed at creating a better society by weeding out people such as criminals and mentally disabled people considered undesirable.
The panel has discussed amounts between $20,000 and $50,000 a person. At the panel’s meeting last month, Berry suggested paying $20,000 to living victims, though chairwoman Laura Gerald said she wanted to consider a higher amount.
Victims reacted angrily, saying they deserved more money, and descendants argued the estates of victims who have since died also should be paid. Some have suggested as much as $1 million per victim.
“I think that what they’re doing is unfair, and I think that they’re looking at North Carolina in a cheap way,” said Delores Marks, 60, of Durham. “And I think they’re just trying to have something to present so that they’ll go ahead and approve it and get it out of the way.”
Marks’ mother, a Black woman with four children, was sent to a psychiatric hospital in 1953 after showing signs of what Marks thinks was probably post-partum depression. She returned to her family after a few months at the hospital, where she was sterilized.
The Legislature would have to approve any compensation to victims, of which 1,500 to 2,000 the task force has said are believed to be alive. Officials have found 48 of them so far.
Even payments of $20,000 apiece for only 1,500 surviving victims would total $30 million, an amount that could be tough to come up with in a state that has had to trim millions from its budget in recent years. If victims and their descendants were to get $1 million per victim, as some have suggested, the payments could total billions of dollars.
Many states ended their eugenics programs because of associations with Nazi Germany’s program aimed at racial purity, but North Carolina in fact ramped up sterilizations after World War II. The state’s sterilizations peaked in the 1950s, with about 70 percent of all sterilizations performed after the war, according to state records. The program didn’t officially end until 1977. It is one of about a half-dozen states to apologize for eugenics programs.
Most victims were poor, Black women deemed unfit to be parents. People as young as 10 were sterilized for reasons as minor as not getting along with schoolmates or being promiscuous. Although officials obtained consent from patients or their guardians, many did not comprehend what they were signing.
There are more than 60,000 victims of forced sterilization in the U.S., and though several states have apologized for such programs, North Carolina would be the first to compensate victims.
The state could supplement any compensation with a lifetime break from paying state income taxes, said Daren Bakst, director of legal and regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank.
He supports the $20,000 figure, noting that it’s the same compensation paid to living victims of Japanese internment camps. He also said compensation should be paid only to living victims, not descendants.
“Where do you draw the line?” he said. “Just as a logistical matter for the state, it would be impossible to figure out which descendants should be compensated and which shouldn’t.”
Still, Bakst said compensation amounts to more than a mere apology.
“An apology is words,” he said. “Giving money and benefits is going beyond the apology and taking real action and showing North Carolina can learn the lesson of its unfortunate history when it comes to this issue.”
Victims will propose their own recommendations Tuesday, said Marks, who suggested $1 million and said victims shouldn’t accept less than $250,000.
Berry, one of the board members, acknowledged “most of the victims feel that $20,000 or $50,000 is a slap in the face.” But he said he is basing that amount on what would realistically be approved by the Legislature.
Elaine Riddick, who was 14 when the state eugenics board ordered her sterilization, has railed against the compensation amounts proposed so far and called the task force “a new face of the eugenics board.” Riddick had given birth after being raped.
She sued the state in the 1970s, seeking $1 million, and said that figure should increase with time.
“They took away my right to be a complete woman,” she said. “What do you think it is worth?”