by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor | John Locke Foundation
I was disappointed to find out that the continuation budget this year would not contain any compensation for victims of the state’s forcible sterilization program. A month ago it had seemed that there would be positive, bipartisan action on the issue. The program, which spanned five decades, is a shocking blight against North Carolina, but state leaders still have a window of opportunity to acknowledge it and make some kind of amends to the program’s surviving victims.
My colleagues at the John Locke Foundation — especially my predecessor in regulatory studies, Daren Bakst, who championed the cause — have frequently addressed the subject. They see it as I do, as an extreme example of what can happen when government abandons its duty to protect individual rights in order to force promotion of the "common good." State leaders should acknowledge such severe abuse by the government and make it right.
From 1929 to 1977, the State of North Carolina forcibly sterilized about 7,600 of her own people for possessing "undesirable" genetic traits in the name of a movement born out of science and politics: eugenics. It was a program pushed by Progressives intended to further human evolution ("progress") by preventing "undesirables" from reproducing, leaving reproduction to "desirable" members of society.
The idea reached its zenith in Nazi Germany, but North Carolina’s program preceded the Third Reich’s, and over 30 U.S. states had similar laws. To our shame, however, North Carolina’s program was one of the very few that wasn’t ended after seeing the hideous results of the Nazis’ program. In fact, over three-fourths of the state’s roughly 7,600 victims were sterilized after 1945.
Blame for the failure to protect victims of the forcible sterilization program spans all three branches of government in North Carolina. The legislature approved the law, the executive branch implemented it through the North Carolina Eugenics Board, and the judiciary upheld the law as constitutional in In Re Moore in 1976, going so far as to declare it the "duty" of the legislature to enact sterilization laws and "limit a class of citizens in its right to bear or beget children with an inherited tendency to mental deficiency, including feeblemindedness, idiocy, or imbecility," so as to "protect the public and preserve the race from the known effects of the procreation."
Those chosen for involuntary sterilization — most for the vague, catch-all reason of being "feebleminded" — had essentially no legal recourse. The U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927) had upheld the constitutionality of state sterilizations (the opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is chilling), and the state Eugenics Board approved about 90 percent of the sterilization petitions it received. Victims could appeal the Eugenics Board’s decision to sterilize, but few had the means or ability to do so.
The state government itself committed the wrongs against sterilization victims. It’s disappointing that this will not be the year, after all, that the state government owns up to its deplorable sterilization program.
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