RALEIGH — When North Carolina lawmakers return to budget work next year, they should consider compensation for more than 2,900 living victims of the state’s forced sterilization program. The John Locke Foundation’s top legal expert makes the case for compensation in a new Policy Report.
The report arrives as the Governor’s Task Force to Determine the Method of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board meets with victims today in Raleigh.
“The clock is ticking for the living victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program,” said report author Daren Bakst, JLF Director of Legal and Regulatory Studies. “It is critical to compensate these living victims — and only the living victims, not their descendants — and to do so in the proper manner. Maybe, at least to some minimal extent, the North Carolina government could achieve some redemption for its actions.”
The state’s actions involved a forced sterilization program that targeted about 7,600 people. Originally authorized by state law in 1919, forced sterilization continued in North Carolina until at least the 1970s. The sterilizations were tied to a program of “negative eugenics,” an attempt to discourage reproduction by people with “undesirable genetic traits,” Bakst said.
“The practice of negative eugenics is what led to forced sterilization in North Carolina and genocide in Nazi Germany,” Bakst added. “The government, in both instances, presumed to know who were more desirable humans than others and took drastic actions to achieve its desired ends.”
North Carolina ranked third among American states in the number of people who faced forced sterilization. Unlike most states, North Carolina drastically increased the number of forced sterilizations after World War II, Bakst said.
Bakst’s report details the history of forced sterilization in North Carolina and rebuts arguments from opponents of state compensation.
“There is probably no greater fear among compensation opponents than the argument that such a move could be used to provide the justification for providing reparations for slavery,” Bakst said. “But there are important differences between ‘reparations’ for slavery and compensation for living eugenic victims.”
One key difference is that no victims of slavery are still alive today, Bakst said. “With slavery reparations, the government would be compensating individuals who were not the subject of any clear and direct harm,” he said. “In contrast, victims of eugenics are still alive and are clearly identifiable. Their actual injury is known. It is not speculative.”
Eugenics victims had no legal recourse to stop the government from sterilizing them, and they have had no legal recourse to seek damages after the fact, Bakst said.
“All branches of government failed these victims,” he said. “The legislature established the eugenics program, the executive branch implemented the program through a Eugenics Board, and the North Carolina judiciary went out of its way to endorse the practice of forced sterilization.”
The judiciary’s failure deserves significant attention, Bakst added. “This failure truly made it virtually impossible to protect the eugenics victims’ rights,” he said. “The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1927 that forced sterilizations were constitutional. The North Carolina Supreme Court put its rubber stamp on the state’s eugenics law in 1976 when the court held that the law was constitutional. In addition to that finding, North Carolina’s highest court indicated that it felt it was the ‘duty’ of the legislature to enact sterilization laws.”
Some North Carolina lawmakers have recognized the importance of compensating victims of forced sterilization, Bakst said. This year’s House Bill 70 called on the state to provide victims $20,000 each. “This would offer some tangible compensation,” he said. “Coincidentally, the $20,000 figure matches the compensation provided to Japanese internment victims under federal law.”
Beyond the $20,000, Bakst recommends that the state offer taxpayers a chance to check off $3 on their state tax returns to provide compensation for eugenics victims. “As another financial benefit, all victims would be exempted from paying any more state income taxes or property taxes for the rest of their lives.”
North Carolina must take responsibility for the results of its eugenics program, Bakst said. “The path to hell is paved with good intentions,” he said. “Those responsible for the eugenics program, including every branch of government and many cheerleaders in the media, likely did not view their actions as evil. Like some of the most evil figures in history, most eugenics supporters saw their actions as promoting good.”
The eugenics program should teach government leaders critical lessons, Bakst said. “Government officials, whether they’re legislators or bureaucrats, should remember the danger of putting the ‘greater good’ over individuals, especially when it comes to those individuals’ fundamental rights,” he said. “Officials should learn that it is impossible for them to know what is best when it comes to citizens’ personal lives.”
“If we are to live in a free society, we must be willing to accept many things we might not like, even some things that impose indirect costs on us,” Bakst added. “Quite simply, those in government must remember that we are a nation based on individual rights. Government’s role is to protect those rights, not to abridge them.”
Daren Bakst’s Policy Report, “North Carolina’s Forced-Sterilization Program: A case for compensating the living victims,” is available soon at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Bakst at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].