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North Carolina Drops Payment to Forced Sterilization Victims‎

June 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
North Carolina legislators balked at a plan to set aside $10 million in the state budget to compensate victims of forced sterilizations, contending that the state could not afford the payments in a tight budget year. Ray Suarez speaks with John Frank, political reporter of The News & Observer.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the battle over compensating victims of a eugenics program.

Many states in the U.S. had a sterilization program in the 20th century. But while involuntary sterilizations were abandoned in most places after World War II, North Carolina continued the practice for decades. It looked like it was going to be the first state to pay victims for their suffering from those abuses, but what was a likely deal has fallen apart.

North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis conceded defeat Wednesday after the state Senate rebuffed appeals to compensate victims of forced sterilizations.

THOM TILLIS (R), North Carolina general assembly speaker: I said that if eugenics didn’t occur, it would be a personal failure. And at this point, it is, and it’s something I will continue to work on.

RAY SUAREZ: Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina sterilized 7,600 people deemed feebleminded or promiscuous.

Elaine Riddick was 14 at the time.

ELAINE RIDDICK, sterilized: I was basically in the bed 15 to 17 days out of a month hemorrhaging because of this.

RAY SUAREZ: Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue wanted $10 million, enough to pay $50,000 to each of the 146 known living victims.

The measure overwhelmingly cleared the Statehouse, but yesterday, the state Senate announced a budget without money for victims.

PHIL BERGER (R), North Carolina state representative: There was no ability to develop consensus on one particular path forward with reference to eugenics.

RAY SUAREZ: Lawmakers will vote on a final budget later this week.

We get more on all this from John Frank, a reporter covering the story for The News and Observer in Charlotte. He joins us from Raleigh.

John, when this agreement was first announced to compensate those who had been sterilized without their consent, was there any anticipation that it was going to run into an inability to get appropriated money?

JOHN FRANK, The News and Observer: From the beginning, when the eugenics task force first approved the $50,000 payments in January, victims were hopeful.

House speaker Thom Tillis, a powerful Republican, got on board early in backing some form of compensation. He put legislation in motion and put hit in the state budget. So victims for more hopeful than they’d ever been. North Carolina has discussed compensating victims since — for more than a decade, and the state apologized back in 2002.

This was the victims’ closest chance to actually get money. If there was opposition in the beginning, it was quiet. But all along, as in any political process, the deal is far from done until the budget was inked.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, here we are running up against deadlines and up against end-of-session pressures. State Sen. Don East said: “I’m sorry it happened. I don’t think money fixes it.”

Sen. Jerry Tillman said, “A great wrong was done, but we didn’t do it.”

Is that more of the sentiment that you’re starting to hear from senators as they don’t follow through on the lower House’s promise?

JOHN FRANK: That is the sentiment.

This was a bipartisan plan. House Republicans and House Democrats were on board. The Democratic governor was on board, even though she’s clashed with Republicans in the legislature quite a number of times. But in the Senate, Republicans were wary of taking up the issue at all for, as you mentioned, budget reasons. In a tight budget period, they thought the $10 million could be better spent.

But there are also larger reasons, where the Republicans just didn’t want to deal with the issue at all. They felt the current generation shouldn’t have to compensate for a previous generation’s sins.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that’s interesting, because that’s really two different arguments, whether it’s about money, whether North Carolina can really afford to do this, or whether the past sort of belongs to the past and you just can’t right past wrongs with money.

JOHN FRANK: It’s true.

We heard both avenues from Republicans in the Senate. This is particularly coming from conservatives in the caucus. It represents a divide — it represents a divide in the Republicans in North Carolina at this time. Some are following the state’s tradition as more progressive for the South. And others are sticking to a more conservative Tea Party agenda.

And they just could not reach agreement here. And the Senate just didn’t want to deal with it. As you noted, it was a huge blow to the political capital of the Republican House speaker and a big blow to these victims. They testified numerous times all across the state, recounting these really horrible emotional trials that they went through, many when they were quite young.

And they were pretty disappointed in how it came out, suggesting that Republicans were just waiting for them to die, as many of them are elderly.

RAY SUAREZ: As we mentioned, the governor is for this settlement. You mentioned the House speaker. And of course the House passed a version of the compensation plan.

Let’s talk about legislative machinery. Is this dead for this session almost without a doubt?

JOHN FRANK: Almost without a doubt, yes.

The legislature is wrapping up their session. It will be done in a few days. To get the legislation through, the actual bill, money need to be appropriated in the budget. The budget was passed by the House and Senate today and sent to the governor with veto-proof majorities. So the budget is essentially a done deal.

RAY SUAREZ: There is an organized group, North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. What’s been their reaction to this last-minute legislative roadblock?

JOHN FRANK: Horrible disappointment.

They from the start were very optimistic. They spent a good amount of time working with the governor’s task force, trying to figure out the appropriate amount of compensation, working with lawmakers, trying to educate them. The supporters blame ignorance for the Senate’s refusal to go along with this plan.

And this task force, this foundation worked quite hard to educate people about this program, which, as you noted, lasted well past other states.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the alternative now? Have the victims talked about filing suit on their own, going either as a class-action or as individuals?

JOHN FRANK: Yes, one of the most outspoken victims, Elaine Riddick, told us yesterday that she is considering a class-action lawsuit against the state and is rallying support among her fellow victims.

Of course, such a settlement would obviously take years and time that these victims don’t have. From the legislative end, they’d have to start from scratch next year, when the legislature returns and crafts a new budget and crafts new legislation.

RAY SUAREZ: John Frank is from The Charlotte News and Observer. Thanks for joining us.

JOHN FRANK: Thank you.