An image of the cover of the John Locke Foundation's policy report "North Carolina's Forced Sterilization Program: A Case for Compensating the Living Victims" courtesy of the John Locke Foundation website.

Editor’s note: Read previous Carolina Public Press coverage about the number of sterilizations in Western North Carolina and how Buncombe County played a prominent role in the state eugenics program.

According to recently released figures, as many as 3,000 of the approximately 7,600 North Carolinians sterilized under a state eugenics program are still alive today. Now, as a task force appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue prepares recommendations for compensating the victims, the John Locke Foundation has issued a report urging prompt financial restitution.

The report called “North Carolina’s Forced-Sterilization Program: A Case for Compensating the Living Victims” was issued July 6 and authored by Daren Bakst, director of legal and regulatory studies for the John Locke Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that describes itself as working “for truth, for freedom, and for the future of North Carolina.”

The sterilizations, most of which were authorized by the official N.C. Eugenics Board, took place across the state from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. While most of Western North Carolina employed the procedure somewhat sparingly, among the state’s 100 counties, Buncombe had the fifth most sterilizations, with a total of 139.

The era of the sterilizations — which targeted individuals with epilepsy, those deemed “feebleminded” and prisoners judged beyond rehabilitation — “is not a remnant from the distant past but something that is recent and still haunts the state today,” Bakst noted in his report. “All branches of the government failed these victims,” he wrote, urging the state to provide financial compensation promptly.

In a few weeks, the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, a state office created by Perdue and funded by the General Assembly, is slated to present preliminary recommendations for ways to offer compensation. The office then is scheduled to issue a final report in February.

Meanwhile, N.C. House Bill 70, which passed a first reading in the House on Feb. 14, would mandate state payments of $20,000 to each surviving sterilization victim. House Minority Whip State Rep. Ray Rapp (D), who represents Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Bakst noted that the payment proposed in the legislation is the same amount the federal government ultimately gave to Japanese-Americans who were forcibly interred during World War II.

The John Locke Foundation report noted that while other states also operated eugenics programs, North Carolina’s stood apart in ways that make the state uniquely culpable. For example, “North Carolina, unlike most states, drastically increased the number of forced sterilizations after World War II” — even after the horror of Nazi Germany’s eugenic abuses was exposed. What’s more, Bakst wrote, North Carolina “was one of a few states that forcibly sterilized non-institutionalized individuals.”

Some opponents of compensation fear that “such a move could be used to provide justification for giving reparations for slavery” in the United States, Bakst wrote in the report, but he sees no such slippery slope: “Today, none of the individuals who were victims of slavery are alive. With slavery reparations, the government…would be compensating individuals who were not the subject of any clear and direct harm. In contrast, many victims of eugenics are still alive and are clearly identifiable. Their actual injury is known and not speculative.”

While some of those injuries occurred in the state’s fairly recent past, “time is short for the living victims,” Bakst wrote in the report. “The legislature should take immediate action so that as many victims as possible can be properly compensated…North Carolina still has a chance to achieve some redemption for its actions.”

Bakst also urged that “other steps beyond compensation” be taken. Namely, “the state should ensure that, to the extent possible, such gross violations of natural, inalienable rights never happen again.”

Click here for a video of Bakst summarizing the report’s key points.

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Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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