TOPICS > Politics

North Carolina Moves to Compensate People Sterilized Against Their Will

January 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Roughly 7,600 people were sterilized in North Carolina against their will between 1929 and 1974. A state panel voted Tuesday to pay the victims $50,000 each. Ray Suarez discusses the history of the program and the panel's decision with Charmaine Fuller-Cooper of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, North Carolina moves toward compensating victims of a sterilization program that lasted more than four decades.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: North Carolina was by no means the only state to have people sterilized against their will, but it was among the most aggressive in pursuing the policy.

Roughly 7,600 people were sterilized between 1929 and 1974, many of them poor, sick, uneducated, or institutionalized, sometimes through force and coercion. The vast majority of the procedures took place in the years after World War II, when other states pulled back from such programs.

The state apologized for the offenses in 2002. Today, a task force voted to pay the remaining living victims $50,000 apiece.

We look at the history and today’s decision with one of the principal activists working with the state’s task force.

Charmaine Fuller Cooper the executive director of the state foundation for victims of sterilization.

Welcome to the program.

How did North Carolina first get involved in sterilizing people?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER, North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation: North Carolina first became involved in the whole sterilization procedure at the height of eugenics in America.

At the height of eugenics, we had approximately over 30 states that had sterilization programs or laws, with Indiana being the first state. Ironically, North Carolina actually didn’t sterilize as many people in the early years like other states, but after World War II, North Carolina became very aggressive.

RAY SUAREZ: But after World War II, eugenics — that is, keeping people who are judged to be inferior from having children — was thoroughly discredited.

How come North Carolina continued with the program for almost 30 years?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: You know, it’s very unexplainable in North Carolina why our program continued for another 30 years after other states had pretty much dismantled their programs.

And it’s very horrifying and very shocking. And that’s one of the reasons why North Carolina’s governor and other people in the state are really working to gain justice for victims now.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the years, a lot of state employees, most notably social workers, judged people to be feeble minded, epileptic, mentally diseased.

Were these professionally qualified judgments? Were these people who were tested and screened, or just on the say-so of a social worker made unable to have children?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: Many people were sterilized based on the say-so of social workers.

Also, many people were given I.Q. tests, but we have to remember that these I.Q. tests were given in North Carolina around the time that you had literacy tests being declared unconstitutional throughout the South.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you got to know many of the victims over the years.

Beyond the medical fact of not being able to be parents, what’s the effect been on their lives?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: You know, a lot of the victims are devastated. Many of them have had to heal in their own ways.

But no victim is the same. Many victims have different stories to tell. And we have a lot of diverse victims within North Carolina, but the common thread is that many of them were targeted because of poverty.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the survivors today, the class that is going to be compensated in this way, what’s their age range, and what was the range of their ages when they were sterilized?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: The age range of victims today, the youngest victim would be 50 years of age. The youngest victim who was sterilized within North Carolina was 10 years old at the time of the sterilization.

RAY SUAREZ: Ten years old. Can you tell us the story that’s involved there?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: No, I don’t have his specific story.

But the stories throughout North Carolina range from people who thought they had their appendix removed, and they find out later in life that they were actually sterilized. We also have individuals who they had children as a result of incest or rape, and immediately after they had their first child, they were raped.

We had a lot of individual who were sterilized as a condition of being released from a state institution.

RAY SUAREZ: So, in some cases, as a condition, so they knew what was happening to them. But, for some, as you mentioned, told they were having their appendix out, they didn’t know they were unable to bear children until many years later.

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: That is true.

And even many of the people in state institutions didn’t really realize the conditions. Some were told that they had to have a small procedure before they could come home. And for some of them, they found out later in life, both men and women, that that small procedure resulted in the long-term consequence of them never being able to bear children.

RAY SUAREZ: In this multiyear process, how did you finally arrive at the amount of $50,000? And do the victims think it’s enough?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: The task force has had a very difficult time with trying to come down to a figure. They wanted to make sure that the public knew that no amount of money would ever compensate a person for their inability to have any more children in the future.

But they want to make a huge statement both to North Carolina and to the world that these sterilizations were awful and should never be conducted again. They began looking at the figure of $20,000. Some of that figure was looked at in looking at what happened after Japanese interment victims were compensated many, many years ago and a $20,000 award was given.

But, ultimately, today, many of the task force members voted as a majority to recommend $50,000 for all of the living victims of North Carolina’s sterilization program.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, some of those people had tried to sue North Carolina over the years and were not successful. Is this meant to be the end of it? Or if someone figures $50,000 is simply not enough for them and they want to continue, can they?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: You know, that would be a question for a lot of the legal experts throughout the nation.

Two victims did sue the state of North Carolina in the early 1970s, when a lot of human experimentation was coming to light, such as the Tuskegee experimentation in Alabama. But that’s really a question for the legal experts. But the hope in North Carolina is that compensation will help to provide some closure.

We understand that for many victims, there’s nothing that will ever completely heal them. And they will need a support system for the rest of their lives. But the state of North Carolina feels that compensation will go beyond just a verbal apology.

RAY SUAREZ: Beyond simply apologizing, beyond the payment, has this case reopened a conversation in North Carolina about the conditions that allowed this kind of thing to happen?

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER: You know, that has been part of the conversation, but it’s certainly at the beginning stages to looking at, how did this happen in the first place? What happened with eugenics?

And this also occurred during the time when the Great Depression had just ended in the United States, and a lot of people never recovered after the Great Depression. But for many states, eugenics was a solution for poverty. And, unfortunately, North Carolina wants to make sure that people recognize that this is not okay.

RAY SUAREZ: Charmaine Fuller Cooper, thanks for joining us.