In a victory for human rights on Tuesday, a taskforce commissioned by North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue recommended that as many as 2,000 people who the state forcibly sterilized receive $50,000 each as compensation for their suffering. The taskforce took 10 months to review the mass coerced sterilization program undertaken by the North Carolina Eugenics Board between 1929 and 1974. Eugenics Board records show that about 7,600 people were forcibly sterilized in North Carolina alone. Almost 3,000 victims are still alive in North Carolina but the state has only located 72 of them. If the state legislature approves the payments, North Carolina will be the first of roughly 25 states with such programs to compensate victims, though several other states have issued public apologies.
While no amount of money can ever make up for the damage done by this inhumane and discriminatory practice, the taskforce’s decision is a human rights and reproductive justice victory and an important reminder that the right to be a parent is just as precious and just as vulnerable as the right not to be.
Forced sterilization may seem barbaric or foreign to us now. But during the first half of the 20th century in America, it was a legally and medically condoned way to eliminate segments of the population deemed undesirable. Indeed, the North Carolina Eugenics Board comprised the commissioner of public welfare, the secretary of the state board of health, the chief medical officer of the state hospital, the chief medical officer of the Institution for the Feebleminded, and the North Carolina attorney general—and state law authorized its activities. Even the court system was complicit, most clearly in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1927 decision upholding sterilization laws in Buck v. Bell, which has yet to be officially overturned.
In the United States there were more than 60,000 victims of forced or coerced sterilization, drawn from the most marginalized ranks of society—persons with purported or real mental illness or other disabilities, prisoners, low-income people who were blamed for increasing the public assistance rolls, people of color, lesbians, teen parents, and victims of rape and incest.
In North Carolina low-income white victims initially outnumbered victims of color in the program—until the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when the focus turned to poor, black women who were deemed unfit to be mothers. This change mirrored a trend across the country in which women of color were deprived of the ability to become pregnant while white women were denied the right to voluntary sterilization.
While statewide eugenics boards no longer exist, coerced sterilization still happens in America today—and it robs victims of their right to self-determination. For instance, there are cases of criminal defendants agreeing to sterilization procedures in a plea deal in exchange for reduced jail sentences. Both internationally and at home, sterilization is sometimes required of transgendered people before they undergo gender transition. And in the Medicaid program, federal funding for abortion is prohibited while sterilization procedures are reimbursed at high rates. Indeed, reproductive justice advocates have stressed the correlation between coerced sterilization and reduced access to abortion. Ultimately both practices betray a chronic mistrust of women’s capacity to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.
We must make the connection between all forms of reproductive oppression in order to end it once and for all, so that the basic value of human dignity becomes a reality for ourselves and generations to come.
Reproductive justice attempts to do this by blending a human rights framework with traditional reproductive rights advocacy that involves four basic cornerstones:
- The ability to become a parent and to parent with dignity
- The ability to determine whether or when to have children
- The ability to have a healthy pregnancy
- The ability to have healthy and safe families and relationships
This model reflects the fact that the freedom to be a parent is tightly intertwined with the freedom to terminate a pregnancy. Both rights make up equal parts of our reproductive freedom, and neither should rank above the other.
In sum, North Carolina’s decision is a step in the right direction. But we must continue to promote reproductive justice to give families the ability to make their own decisions about how to live their lives.
Lucy Panza is a Policy Analyst in the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.