Science

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Elaine Riddick Jessie

North Carolina Law Confronts State’s Troubling History of Eugenics Policies

March 06, 2009 04:00 PM
by Shannon Firth
A new law in North Carolina seeks to advance research into the state’s historic and tragic eugenic policies, and expand public awareness.

North Carolina to Increase Education Regarding Past Eugenics Program

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On March 5, North Carolina passed a bill to increase research and education of the forced sterilizations that occurred there for over 40 years, ending in 1974. According to The Associated Press, the state sterilized 7,600 people.

The AP writes, “The bill orders the placement of a historical marker, directs university researchers to collect the stories of survivors, and seeks to digitize records.” Compensation for the victims is still under consideration, though budget cuts could play a role.

According to the Winston-Salem Journal, North Carolina’s eugenics’ law—effected in 1929 and modified in 1933—had three reasons for sterilizing people: epilepsy, sickness and feeblemindedness.

More than 2,000 victims of the state’s program were minors, and in one instance, a 10-year-old boy was castrated. Some individuals were selected because they were blind or mentally disabled. However, the Journal notes most were “ordinary people” who may have had premarital sex. Beginning in the late 1960s, poor blacks were most often targeted, and 99 percent of those sterilized were women.

Elaine Riddick Jessie told the Journal that she was sterilized directly after giving birth to her son, because the state decided she was “feebleminded.” Jessie recalls, “I just kept trying to figure out why did it happen to me … I had just turned 14, what was a 14-year-old kid going to know about sterilization.”

While eugenics laws swept through at least 30 states, most shut down or trimmed back their operations after World War II, shamed by the ugly parallels between the ideals these laws promoted and the ideals of the Holocaust. North Carolina was the exception.

Background: Newspaper and university apologize for eugenics involvement

The program’s survival was due in part to a publicity campaign run by the Human Betterment League, spearheaded by James G. Haines, Alice Shelton Gray and Dr. Clarence Gamble. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, these were wealthy citizens who worried that their inheritances would be wasted on paying taxes to those on welfare.

The Journal’s former editor, Jon Witherspoon, said he regrets that his own newspaper played a role in spreading the league’s propaganda. The Journal also noted the much of the eugenics research occurred at Wake Forest University.

In 2003, Dr. William Applegate, dean of the medical school at Wake Forest, apologized: “None of us like what happened here and doubly regret that our institution was involved.”

Video: Rep. Larry Womble

State Rep. Larry Womble, an advocate for victims of the state’s sterilization laws, spoke to News 14 Carolina and explained how the government made its victims powerless: “As a result of you being on the welfare rolls, if you had a child then they would come and threaten to take your benefits if you didn’t participate.”

Reference: Eugenics

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