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North Carolina Bill aims to repay eugenics victims

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North Carolina News Record

Bill aims to repay eugenics victims

May 9, 2005

By Mark Binker Staff Writer
News & Record

RALEIGH -- The state would pay $20,000 to victims of North Carolina's forced-sterilization program under a bill introduced in the General Assembly last week by a Greensboro representative.

"Anytime you have a harm, there should be some compensation," said Earl Jones, a Greensboro Democrat and one of the bill's authors. Rep. Larry Womble, a Winston-Salem Democrat, is the other primary sponsor.

About 7,600 people were sterilized under the state's eugenics program, which ran from 1929 until 1977. It was a misguided effort to cure social ills by preventing those considered "unfit" from having children.

Gov. Mike Easley apologized for the state program in 2002, and in 2003 the General Assembly officially repealed the legislation that allowed for the program.

"To apologize and then not extend some type of compensation, I think, would be just as much a slap in the face," Jones said.

The reparations bill would set aside $69.1 million into a special fund. Victims who wanted to claim compensation could do so through June 2009. The bill also would provide for health care, counseling and educational assistance for those who were victims of the program. It's unclear whether the bill will pass the legislature.

For most of the years it was practiced, forced sterilization in North Carolina was overseen and promoted by a state Eugenics Commission, a panel of five people. But some wonder how the state can set a price tag to repay victims of the practice, while others fear that it could set a precedent for other issues, such as reparations for descendants of slaves.

House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, recently said he wants legal issues thoroughly researched on the compensation idea. Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, hasn't taken a position. Jones said he was confident the bill would pass the legislature, saying that it could build on the momentum set forward by Easley's 2002 apology for the practice.

Karl Schleunes, a UNCG history professor who has researched the history of eugenics, said he did not know of anywhere else that had attempted to pay compensation to those who have been sterilized.

Eugenics got its start with the writings of Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who sought to translate his relative's evolutionary theories into social practice.

Galton speculated that strong nations were more fit than others because of the strength of their population. However, he put forward the idea that modern medicine was allowing less-fit members of society to survive and have children. To remain strong, Galton said, nations need to keep those "lesser" individuals from flourishing.

Although abhorrent to most people today, Schleunes said, the theory and its practice was considered the height of scientific and medical practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"This was an international movement, and the United States was at the forefront," Schleunes said.

Eugenics was widely discredited after it was adopted by Nazi Germany and taken to extremes. More than 30 states had sterilization programs at some point. But North Carolina was unusual for expanding the practice after 1945 and for the fact that in its later years, a disproportionate number of African Americans were sterilized.

Jones said he didn't know if there were any living victims of the program from Greensboro or the surrounding area. He said he didn't mind if North Carolina became the first government to try to repay those who were injured by such a practice.

"It doesn't matter what other people have done or haven't done. There's a certain level of justice that's required," Jones said. "It really serves as a gauge to what kind of institution that we, as a state, have become."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Mark Binker at (919) 832-5549 or [email protected]

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