North Carolina is confronting the legacy of the eugenics-inspired compulsory sterilization program it operated from 1929-1974, in which thousands of citizens were deemed to require mandatory sterilization at the order of the state. Individuals in prisons and mental hospitals were targeted; the N.C. program also allowed social workers to designate individuals for sterilization. Approximately 85% of the victims were female (including rape victims). For background, eugenics (Latin, for good birth) is grounded in the assumption that a genetic basis exists for many characteristics which makes an individual good or bad – thus, the attempt to engage in social genetic engineering by trying to prevent the birth of the unfit (negative eugenics) and to promote the birth of the fit (positive eugenics). In the early 20th century, the U.S. experienced a wave of eugenic fervor that saw its implementation in over 30 state eugenics programs which authorized forced sterilization of “undesirables.” I recommend a look at the Eugenics Archive at the Dolan Center of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; see, also, for example, the minutes of the N.C. Eugenics Board in 1950. The famous case of Buck v. Bell at the Supreme Court in 1927 presented a constitutional challenge to Virginia’ s program for forced sterilization of the mentally retarded as applied to Carrie Buck, a patient institutionalized in a state mental hospital; her challenge under equal protection and due process failed in one of the Court's most notorious opinions.
The last N.C. compulsory sterilization law was repealed in 2003. Fast forward to 2011. This year, the governor signed an executive order establishing a task force to decide on compensation for the victims of the program. Claimants can file on behalf of themselves or others. Task force hearings have been held, and claimants have testified on the lasting damage they incurred under the program. What remains to be seen is the compensation figure (N.C. is the first state to institute this mechanism of redress for victims); the task force has considered payments between $20,000 and $50,000. If this is the first state-sponsored compensation scheme, the payments may signal a complicated monetization of fundamental rights, victim status, delay, and shame that sets a precedent, even with an acknowledgement that it is not possible to establish any precise figure for what was lost to these victims. More broadly, the seemingly archaic U.S. eugenics programs of the 20th century remain very socially and legally relevant as modern genetics provides fertile ground for new theories of human fitness and possible misuse by state authorities.