Is It Enough? North Carolina Sterilization Victims To Be Compensated

I just want it to be over. I just want it to be over. – Elaine Riddick, sterilization survivor.

Among the ugliest and perhaps most underreported incidents in the fight for reproductive access and justice is forced sterilization. The practice, which began out of the eugenics movement to “weed out” bad genes, turned into a powerful tool used to forcefully enact racist, sexist, and ableist sterilization against many communities.

Elaine Riddick and her son Tony. Image copyright of JET.

During the first half of the twenty-first century, sterilization programs became mandatory government policy, in tandem with a rising social interest in eugenics. The United States was the first country to undertake these programs solely based on the ideology of eugenics, targeting at first the mentally ill or physically disabled, and then moving onto poor communities, specifically targeting black and indigenous persons (the majority being women, but also sterilizing men and children as young as 10). Thirty-three states passed compulsory sterilization laws, and by the end of 1956, an estimated 65,000 individuals had been forcibly sterilized, often without their knowledge. North Carolina is one of those states.

This past week, a state eugenics task force recommended to the state of North Carolina to pay $50,000 to victims of the sterilization practices. While the state is certainly not the only state to have enforced compulsory sterilization, it is the first state to offer any sort of monetary compensation for victims. It also stands out due to its continued forcible sterilization until officially ending the practice in 1977, ultimately solidifying itself as having one of the most aggressive sterilization programs in the country. The county of Mecklenburg alone forcibly sterilized more than three times the average population, leaving 485 people unable to bear children. In the end, over 7,600 North Carolina residents have been sterilized.

Elaine Riddick is one of those survivors, as well as one of the first sterilization victims to not only come forward and speak on what had been done to her, but also to sue the state of North Carolina ( a case she lost). At 14, Riddick was sterilized without her knowledge after she had given birth to her only son when she became pregnant after a neighbor raped her. It wasn’t until 1971 that Riddick, who was then married and looking to have another child, was told that she had been sterilized after being deemed “unfit” and “promiscuous” by the North Carolina Eugenics Board. However, with the most recent decision by the task force panel, Riddick and other victims are finally seeing results after a drawn out reconciliation meeting that at one point had suggested that victims should only be awarded $20,000.  The number was deemed insulting, and after much back and forth, the panel officially decided on $50,000 earlier in the week.

“In order for me to get closure,” Riddick told Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio, ” I have to accept this and go on with my life. And that’s what I’m going to start doing. I’m going to go on with my life. I know I will never forget it. But you know, at least I’m a little more satisfied today than I was yesterday.”

But money isn’t enough, nor is it really the point. We live in a culture that has created a very easy formula for correcting wrongs, whether they be oil spills or serious reproductive violations: pay for it and it usually goes away. In no way is this an argument against compensation. If anything, $50,000 seems a paltry, even insulting, amount to offer those who were forcibly sterilized. But it begs asking: can you ever really compensate anyone a proper amount of money for what is possibly one of the most dehumanizing acts of physical violation?

We have repeatedly acknowledged and stated as a task force that no amount of money can adequately pay for the harm done to these citizens. We are not attempting through our work to place a value on anyone’s life. However, we are attempting to achieve a level of financial compensation and other services that can provide meaningful assistance to survivors.

Compensation also serves a collective purpose for the state and sends a clear message that we in North Carolina are people who pay for our mistakes and that we do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights. – Panel chairwoman, Dr. Laura Gerald, a North Carolina Pediatrician

One can only hope that this action can be a step towards pushing other states to go beyond the acknowledgments and half apologies that have become standard. As of this date, of the 33 states who forced sterilization onto people, only half have apologized. “I was a victim twice,” said Riddick, “once by the rapist and once by the state of North Carolina. Normally, if you commit a crime, you pay for it. They committed the biggest crime. They committed a crime against God. They committed a crime against humanity. And this is all I can do is just accept what they said today and go on with my life.”

What is the appropriate amount? What is it worth? All that can be said with certainty, is that justice does not amount to $50,000.

To find out  more information on North Carolina’s Sterilization Program, go to the Winston-Salem Journal’s six-part series, Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program  


13 thoughts on “Is It Enough? North Carolina Sterilization Victims To Be Compensated”

  1. I can’t even…. I was vaguely aware that forced sterilization was an issue in some foreign countries but I never imagined that it was ever legal here.  And mandated?  I mean, I knew there were some groups that tried to convince women to go through the procedure for money but….mandated?  I can’t even wrap my head around it.

  2. $50,000 is not nearly enough, and you have to wonder what is enough. How do you say “We’re sorry,” about something like this?

    One thing I will say, reparations do serve a purpose other than compensating a victim. They also set a concrete legal precedent. In the future, if a case comes to court where someone is trying to force sterilization on another woman in similar circumstances, the lawyers and judges will have this case to use as proof that we have decided it was wrong. A ruling with some sort of punishment/compensation makes a bigger impact than one that is just words. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but at least it’s something.

    1. I think we’re terrible at it.  I don’t know if we are worse than most, though – at least it’s possible to have a dialogue about it, even if people don’t want to hear about it, and even if the government doesn’t want to do anything about it.

  3. As of this date, of the 33 states who forced sterilization onto people, only half have apologized.

    I … just …. What?! There are still states which haven’t apologised? Compensation aside, there still aren’t apologies all round? That’s incredible, and seems to go against so much of what the US stands for …?

    I’m saddened that I first learned about this through the Daily Fail, of all places. Thank you though, Coco, for writing about this.

  4. I don’t know what the appropriate amount is, but I think that something else needs to happen: people need to really understand what it means, and the history of it, and how awful it was.  When people suggest putting welfare moms on forced birth control or even sterilizing them (and this happens – see the viral “put me in charge” crapdate) – so many people either think that’s a funny joke or legitimately think that they have the right to make those kind of choices for other people.  I wish there were a way to make people understand things like this.

    1. I agree, the fact that people glibly joke about forced sterilization is appalling and shows ignorance and a gross lack of empathy. This is part of the United States’ history, and I am sad and angry that I only learned about this a few months ago when it was making the rounds on tumblr; we need to focus more on people of color/indigenous peoples and women in general in academia, but particularly in the science and history classes.

      I’m really glad to hear that the victims are at least getting some compensation, but it’s complete crap that there are states that haven’t apologized at the very least.

    2. They also need to know that this isn’t an issue that’s really gone away. I’ve told this story before, but when I worked for PP back in the 90s right after Norplant came out, NJ was trying to push a law through the legislature forcing ‘undesirable’ women to get Norplant to keep them from having babies ‘on the taxpayers dime’. Its not permanent, like sterilization is, but its based on the same principals. (It didn’t pass, obviously.)

      I think about that every time some jackhole starts talking about how people should get permission from the state to be parents.


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