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THOUSANDS INVOLUNTARILY STERILIZED IN THE UNITED STATES
...AND IT'S STILL LEGAL
June 26, 2011

Barely 40 years after conducting a eugenics program to involuntarily sterilize its' “unfit” citizens, North Carolina is trying to make amends.

Eugenics (meaning “better born”) programs gained popularity in the United States in the early 1900's. Research estimates that more than 60,000 people were sterilized nationwide as part of legalized government programs in 33 states. Even in states without sterilization laws, the procedures were being carried out on an informal basis. Consequently, the number of individuals (primarily women) involuntarily sterilized in the United States could exceed 100,000.

America's eugenics movement called for the sterilization of those American's who were deemed either intellectually or socially unfit. After World War II, most states discontinued their eugenics programs because of the association with Nazi Germany's holocaust programs aimed at racial purity. North Carolina, however, ramped up its' involuntary sterilization program after the war, and continued it well into the 1970s. About 70 percent of North Carolina's 7,600 sterilizations occurred after the war. North Carolina has now formally apologized to the nearly 3,000 still-living victims of the state's sterilization program, and lawmakers are considering offering these survivors compensation of $20,000 each.

North Carolina had the most open-ended law in the country when it came to involuntary sterilization of its' citizens. While other state laws concentrated primarily on imprisoned criminals and individuals in mental institutions, North Carolina law allowed doctors and social workers to refer individuals still living at home to the state Eugenics Board. North Carolina used rudimentary IQ tests and gossip from neighbors to justify sterilization of young girls from poor families. In North Carolina, sterilization laws were seen by social workers as a means by which to limit the cost of public welfare to the poor. Poor, uneducated women and girls (as young as 10) were coerced into having the procedure under threat of losing their public assistance.

In 1923, 16-year-old Carrie Buck was institutionalized by her foster guardians as “feebleminded”. Carrie became pregnant when she was raped by the nephew of her foster family. To keep the “scandal” of the circumstances of her pregnancy from circulating, her guardians had her commited to the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Carrie ultimately became the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, challenging the Constitutionality of Virginia's compulsory sterilization laws. In an 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Carrie's involuntary sterilization was upheld as legal. That decision has never been overturned.

Despite North Carolina's belated remorse regarding the thousands of its' citizens who were prevented from having children under ill-conceived eugenics statutes, ironically and disturbingly the involuntary and compulsory sterilization of our citizens is still legally permissible in the United States.

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