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USA Today Opinion Piece Urges States To Follow N.C. in Compensating Eugenic Sterilization Victims

USA Today Opinion Piece Urges States To Follow N.C. in Compensating Eugenic Sterilization Victims

August 23, 2013 — North Carolina recently became the first state to enact a measure "to compensate living victims ... who were sterilized under 20th Century eugenic laws," according to a USA Today opinion piece by Paul Lombardo, an author and professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law, and Peter Hardin, who wrote about eugenics as a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"But unless other states act quickly, history will also recall that thirty-one other states had sterilization statutes, and future generations will be astounded that most of them have neither voiced a word of regret nor voted a dollar for victim compensation," Lombardo and Hardin write.

History of Eugenic Sterilization Laws

According to the authors, starting in 1907, "more than 65,000 men, women and children were involuntarily sterilized under eugenics-inspired laws" that politicians "championed" and the public largely accepted "as a step toward 'scientifically' engineering a better society." In 1927, the Supreme Court in the case Buck v. Bell upheld the laws as "appropriate public health initiative[s]."

By 1937, 32 states had passed sterilization laws that aimed "to end procreation among the mentally ill or 'feebleminded,' the poor and others considered 'socially inadequate,'" according to Lombardo and Hardin. The majority of these laws "remained in force well into the 1970s," they add.

States' Modern-Day Response

More than 10 years ago, Virginia became the first state to apologize to victims of eugenic sterilizations, followed by six other states. However, only "North Carolina has seen continuous and repeated efforts by a legislator to compensate victims," which was likely fueled by "[t]he presence of more victims with lucid memories still alive to tell their tragic stories" to the media and lawmakers, Lombardo and Hardin argue.

Others states could "consider compensating sterilization without incurring a huge burden," but politicians "fear that reparations could set costly precedents for addressing other past injustices," Lombardo and Hardin continue. Additionally, some might think that "the legions of poor and disabled" affected by eugenics "are not a voting constituency," they write.

The authors conclude that it is too soon to know if North Carolina "marks a turning point" for states, "[b]ut if state capitals don't act soon to identify and compensate eugenic sterilization victims, it will be too late, and those states will find a place of their own on history's list of unrepentant butchers" (Lombardo/Hardin, USA Today, 8/21).