Rock Center's Dr. Nancy Snyderman investigates how thousands of North Carolinians were sterilized under the state's now defunct eugenics program. Survivors such as Elaine Riddick are demanding answers and compensation from the government.
People sterilized against their will under a discredited North Carolina state program should each be paid $50,000, a task force voted Tuesday, marking the first time a state has moved to compensate victims of a once-common public health practice called eugenics.
The Legislature must still approve any payments.
The panel recommended that the money go to verified, living victims, including those who are alive now but may die before the lawmakers approve any compensation. The panel had discussed amounts between $20,000 and $50,000 per person.
Before the vote, chairwoman Laura Gerald said the task force was seeking a balance between the victims' needs and political reality, noting that "compensation has been on the table now for nearly 10 years, but the state has lacked the political will to do anything other than offer an apology."
North Carolina is one of about a half dozen states to apologize for past eugenics programs, but it is alone in trying to put together a plan to compensate victims.
State officials sterilized more than 7,600 people in North Carolina from 1929 to 1974 under eugenics programs, which at the time were aimed at creating what was seen as a better society by weeding out people such as criminals and mentally disabled people considered undesirable.
North Carolina was not the only state to engage in the practice. But it was different because it ramped up sterilizations after World War II despite associations between eugenics and Nazi Germany. About 70 percent of all North Carolina's sterilizations were performed after the war, peaking in the 1950s, according to state records. The state officially ended the program in 1977.
A task force report last year said 1,500 to 2,000 of those victims were still alive, and the state has verified 72 victims.
On Tuesday, some said they were simply looking forward to the issue being resolved.
"I just want it to be over," said 57-year-old Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized when she was 14 after she gave birth to a son who was the product of rape. "You can't change anything. You just let go and let God."
Riddick, a constant presence at the task force meetings, said she was surprised that the task force recommended $50,000 instead of $20,000.
During an interview for NBC's Rock Center in November, Riddick gave an emotional account of the events leading to her sterilization. She was 13 when she got pregnant after being raped by a neighbor in Winfall, N.C., in 1967. The state ordered that immediately after giving birth she should be sterilized. Doctors cut and tied off her fallopian tubes.
“I have to carry these scars with me. I have to live with this for the rest of my life,” she said.
Riddick said she was never told what was happening. “Got to the hospital and they put me in a room and that’s all I remember, that’s all I remember,” she said. “When I woke up, I woke up with bandages on my stomach.”
Riddick’s records reveal that a five-person state eugenics board in Raleigh had approved a recommendation that she be sterilized. The records label Riddick as “feebleminded” and “promiscuous.” They said her schoolwork was poor and that she “does not get along well with others.”
“I was raped by a perpetrator [who was never charged] and then I was raped by the state of North Carolina. They took something from me both times,” she said. “The state of North Carolina, they took something so dearly from me, something that was God given.”
It wouldn’t be until Riddick was 19, married and wanting more children, that she’d learn she was incapable of having any more babies. A doctor in New York, where she was living at the time, told her that she’d been sterilized.
“Butchered. The doctor used that word… I didn’t understand what she meant when she said I had been butchered,” Riddick said.
Riddick once sued North Carolina for a million dollars. Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, but the court declined to hear the case. “I would like for the state of North Carolina to right what they wronged with me,” she said.
Despite the state social workers who declared Riddick was “mentally retarded” and “promiscuous”, she went to college and raised the son born moments before she was sterilized. Her son is devoted to his mother and a successful entrepreneur.
Riddick is proud of her achievements.
“I don’t know where I would be if I listened to the state of North Carolina,” she said.