Recent news that the North Carolina Industrial Commission has denied more than 300 claims for compensation from the $10 million Eugenics Compensation Fund and allowed just 180 of the nearly 800 claims filed may come as some surprise in light of the state’s admission to forcibly sterilizing more than 7,600 people — including over 2,000 children — between 1929 and 1974. Investigative reports estimate more than 1,800 victims of involuntary sterilizations authorized by the all-white, five-member Eugenics Board are still living.
The compensation bill adopted in June 2013 provided a one-year window for victims to file claims. The rules governing that process weren’t adopted until December. And while the Department of Administration (DOA) did some general outreach, there were no resources dedicated to try to identify or locate the thousands of victims whose names and records were known to, and only to, the Department (direct mail was sent only to those victims who initiated contact with the DOA). The June 30, 2014 filing deadline slipped by many victims and families who simply didn’t know about the compensation program until too late.
More claims are blocked by the requirement that victims be alive on June 30, 2013 in order to be eligible for compensation, a cutoff that leaves the heirs of victims who died before that date wondering why the State is less liable to them, or they are less deserving of compensation, than heirs of victims who managed to survive until July 1.
Most troubling however, is the discovery that many involuntary sterilizations occurred without any direct involvement by the Eugenics Board. According to information collected by the UNC Center for Civil Rights and members of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, who have been helping individuals navigate the claims process, it seems that in the 1960s and 1970s, various county social services departments had a practice of advising public assistance recipients — African American women in particular — that assistance would be terminated unless they permanently surrendered their ability to reproduce. Many women were coerced into agreeing to the procedure with the (false) understanding that it was reversible. Those women suffered shock and sadness when they discovered years later, following a positive shift in their socioeconomic conditions, that they would never have another child.
A number of victims report—and their medical records confirm—that doctors in Greenville and Charlotte performed tubal ligations paid for by county social services following delivery of babies born to poor, single mothers (often teenagers) during the late 1960s and early 1970s. With a state-sanctioned statutory eugenics scheme still thriving in those years, some in the medical establishment apparently saw no ethical problem with this practice, despite their patients’ lack of understanding of what was being done to their bodies in the name of “social welfare.” Because the sterilizations proceeded without the Eugenics Board’s formal approval, there are no records of them in the DOA files, and these victims’ claims are being denied.
The question of eligibility has an additionally tragic component. Rather than establish a set amount for each victim, the State capped the total reparation fund at $10 million, to be divided equally among the number of “eligible” claimants. This compensation model cruelly sets the interests of one group of victims against another, and undermines the state’s admitted responsibility to equitably and fully accept its liability for these horrific acts. In light of all that has surfaced about the sterilizations not documented by the Eugenics Board, as well as the obstacles confronted by Eugenics Board victims and their families who have filed claims, it seems a stretch to call this “justice” for sterilization victims.
Elizabeth Haddix is a staff attorney at the Center for Civil Rights at the UNC School of Law.