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.
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