Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina forcibly sterilized about 7,600 people whom the state deemed "feeble-minded" or otherwise undesirable. Many were poor Black women.
In this 2012 file photo, Elaine Riddick becomes emotional as she listens to Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, speak during a House committee meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a teenager, Riddick was one of the people who were sterilized by choice, force or coercion between 1929 and 1974. (Photo: AP Photo/The News & Observer, Shawn Rocco, File)
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The first serious proposal to compensate victims of forced sterilization failed Wednesday when North Carolina legislators said they were not approving any money for them. One ardent supporter declared: "At this point, I have lost all hope."
The effort to give each victim $50,000 passed the House, but the Senate never gave the measure consideration. Republican lawmakers in that chamber said the state didn't have the money in such a tight budget year to make up for misguided, decades-old procedures. Legislators also feared paying the victims would lead other groups, such as descendants of slaves, to seek reparations.
"If you could lay the issue to rest, it might be one thing. But I'm not so sure it would lay the issue at rest because if you start compensating people who have been 'victimized' by past history, I don't know where that would end," Republican Sen. Austin Allran said.
Most states had eugenics programs but abandoned those efforts after World War II when such practices became closely associated with Nazi Germany's attempts to achieve racial purity. Scientists also debunked the assumption that "defective" humans could be weeded out of the population.
North Carolina stood out because it actually ramped up its program after the war.
Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina forcibly sterilized about 7,600 people whom the state deemed "feeble-minded" or otherwise undesirable. Many were poor black women.
A group set up to help North Carolina victims estimated up to 1,800 were still living, though it had only verified 146 people.
The N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation held numerous public hearings over the past year on whether to compensate the victims and how much to give them. At the hearings, victims voiced the pain of being sterilized and said their anger hadn't abated with time.
"That's the only thing I hated about being operated on, 'cause I couldn't have kids," Willis Lynch, 77, who was sterilized at 14, said at a hearing last year. "It's always been in the back of my mind."
Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue set aside $10 million in her proposed budget for the victims. She had the backing of Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, but couldn't muster support from key Republican senators.
The compensation was considered a failure when legislators agreed to a state budget plan that didn't include any money for the victims. The budget plan still needs approval from both chambers. Any compensation would need to be in that package.
Tillis said he considered the rejection a personal failure on his part. He and other legislators said they would keep fighting for compensation.
One of the measure's biggest supporters, Democratic Rep. Earline Parmon, said she was ashamed to be a part of the General Assembly.
"I'm appalled that the North Carolina Senate today took no action to compensate the victims that we as a state robbed of their rights to reproduce and to have children," Parmon said. "At this point, I have lost all hope."
Parmon became the lead champion of the bill after Rep. Larry Womble, who led the fight for 11 years, was critically injured in a car wreck that killed another man. He returned to the Legislature last month, pleading with a committee from his wheelchair to approve the bill.
Allran, the Republican senator, said the timing was not right.
"The state has no money anyway and the teachers would like to have a pay raise, and state employees would like to have a pay raise and you're dealing with a $250 million shortfall in Medicaid," Allran said.
Republican Sen. Don East said last week that money would not change anything.
"You just can't rewrite history. It was a sorry time in this country," East said. "I'm so sorry it happened, but throwing money don't change it, don't make it go away. It still happened."
People as young as 10 were sterilized, in some cases for not getting along with schoolmates, or for being promiscuous. Although officials obtained consent from patients or their guardians, many did not understand what they were signing.
One of the most outspoken victims, Elaine Riddick of Atlanta, has said she was raped and then sterilized after giving birth to a son when she was 14.
Riddick said she planned legal action, but she has already been to court once. In 1983, a jury rejected victims' claims that they had been wrongfully deprived of their right to bear children. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.
"I have given North Carolina a chance to justify what they had wronged," she said Wednesday. "These people here don't care about these victims. ... I will die before I let them get away with this."
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