The Importance of the North Carolina Sterilization Victims Compensation Act

This month is an important one for the North Carolina Sterilization Victims Compensation Act.  The Act was passed last summer, after years of advocacy, to provide some compensation to people who had been involuntarily sterilized in North Carolina from the 1930s to the 1970s.  The Act set aside $10 million, which will be divided next year between the people who meet the burden of showing that they were involuntarily sterilized (and who were alive as of June 30, 2013).  This is an important precedent, which other states that also sterilized many people will be looking to for guidance.

Therein lies a story.  In the early twentieth century the idea that developmentally disable people — and some others — should not be permitted to have children.  Running from the 1910s to the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell, legislatures and courts struggled with the legality and morality of forced sterilization.  But after Buck v. Bell slate legislatures and state courts more or less fell in line and approved involuntarily sterilization.  This was a trans-Atlantic movement; when North Carolina’s Eugenics Board advocated sterilization in the 1930s they referred in positive terms to Germany’s sterilization actions.  The justification for sterilization was based on economics: the government, proponents said, should sterilize people whose children might be a charge on the public.  Economics trumped considerations of humanity.

As our country fought in World War II, the ideas of eugenics — which seemed so closely allied with Nazi ideas — plummeted in popularity.  But even as other states largely abandoned eugenics, North Carolina persisted.  The state provided pre-printed forms to help physicians and social workers as they pushed people along towards sterilization.  And in the wake of World War II thousands were sterilized in North Carolina.  Some, it should be acknowledged, were sterilized voluntarily, just as people choose such procedures today when their families are complete.  That group is not covered by the statute, for obvious reasons.

The deadline for claimants to file is the end of June, 2014.  So individuals who were involuntarily sterilized need to file soon with the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims.  After that we’ll see how the administrative process treats these claims; the events took place decades ago, so evidence will be difficult to come by.  The statute puts the burden on claimants if they were of majority and competent.  For those who were age of minority or incompetent, the state will have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the sterilization was voluntary.  Next June the state will be distributing $10 million evenly divided among however many claimants its Industrial Commission has decided were involuntarily sterilized under the authority of the state’s Eugenics Board.  A lot of people will be watching this.

The image accompanying this post is the North Carolina Department of Justice, where the Eugenics Board met to consider applications for sterilization.

More by | Alfred L. Brophy Alfred L. Brophy , Contributor