RALEIGH, NC – Between 1929 and 1974, more than 8,000 North Carolinians were forcibly sterilized under the state’s eugenics program, which aimed to purge the gene pool of so-called “undesirables” – including criminals, poor people, ethnic minorities, people with mental disabilities, people with chronic health problems, and anyone else the state deemed unworthy of procreation “for the greater good.”
Now, 630 surviving victims of the policy are set to receive up to $15,000 each in compensation after the state government officially apologized for the program and set up a $10 million fund to pay reparations to any living persons who can prove they were sterilized under the policy.
Previously, the state had estimated that about 1,800 victims of the policy are still living today. But as Monday’s claims deadline passed, only about a third of them had filed for compensation. Not all of them will qualify for the payments – reparations are contingent on victims’ names appearing in the official North Carolina Eugenics Board program records. If a victim’s records have been lost or destroyed – or if he or she was forcibly sterilized by a doctor acting outside the official scope of the program, as was common during the program’s run, he or she will not be eligible for compensation.
One such victim is Mary Frances English, a television broadcaster who was one of the first victims to speak out publicly about her experience. English was sterilized without her knowledge in 1972, after she found herself both pregnant and newly divorced.
“I was going to a very, very upscale OBGYN clinic in Fayetteville,” English testified before state officials in 2011. “I was having a lot of female problems. The new doctor there assured me he could get me into this program” so that she would not have to worry about birth control.
“He told me this would help me. I wanted to go to college. I had three great kids,” English told the panel. She didn’t feel like she was done having babies forever, but her doctor assured her the procedure was reversible. So she signed the form, believing that she could go back and undo the procedure when she was ready to have babies again.
A few years later, English remarried. When she returned to her OBGYN to have the procedure reversed, “he laughed,” she said.
“He said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. You're sterile. You'll never have any more children. He said, 'I don't know what you think I told you, but you ought to be thankful for the three you got.'”
“I thought I was having [my tubes] tied,” English said. “No. He clipped them and burned them, ladies. He thought it was funny. He laughed at me three times.” She said she has suffered from chronic depression ever since.
While the clinic owners later contacted English to apologize for what the OBGYN had done, state investigators were unable to find any records confirming her side of the story. Last week, she received a letter informing her that she would not be compensated for her unwanted sterilization.
“All of a sudden, I am back to square one,” English told Fox 8 News. “So, now if there is no evidence of it, then why did it come up in all my medical checks?” She said she plans to appeal the decision.
While English has been public about her story, many other victims of the policy are hidden in the shadows, possibly unaware that they are eligible for compensation. The vast majority of living victims are now very elderly, and a not-insignificant number suffer from mental disabilities, which led to their being sterilized in the first place. In order to apply for reparations, such victims would need to either be aware of the opportunity and of sound mind to file the paperwork, or have a court-appointed guardian do it on their behalf.
Meanwhile, as WUNC, North Carolina’s public radio station, noted, the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims was “given almost no money” to search for victims or publicize the availability of compensation. The organization has been almost entirely dependent on media coverage and word-of-mouth to reach out to victims.
In a cruel twist for the victims of the eugenics policy, the more of them who come forward, the smaller their payments will be. Originally, the state predicted only 200 people would come forward, meaning the $10 million set aside for them would have been split into payments of about $50,000 each. Now that the deadline has passed, if all of the 630 applicants who have come forward are approved, their payments will come to roughly $15,000 each.
If all 1,800 of the victims estimated to still be living had come forward, that would have reduced the payments to around $5,600 each.
While eugenics programs were common throughout the United States during the middle third of the 20th century, North Carolina is the first state to have offered financial compensation to its victims. A similar proposal was recently rejected in neighboring Virginia, out of concerns the state would not be able to pay.