A retired handyman from North Carolina said he was sterilized after being sent to a school for mentally and developmentally disabled children. Willis Lynch was just 14 years old.
Records show that during the height of the eugenics movement in the U.S., when conventional wisdom among many social scientists called for warehousing the physically and mentally deficient and preventing them from reproducing; many states enacted laws allowing compulsory sterilization. Students were sterilized at Lynch’s school as a condition of release, “except in the few instances where normal children had been committed by error,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
North Carolina maintained one of the largest eugenics programs in the country. State officials now estimate more than 7,600 people were sterilized between 1929 and the program’s end in 1974. As many as 3,000 sterilized residents are still alive, and this year, Republicans have joined Democrats in the state legislature in endorsing a proposal to compensate the living victims.
The proposal, a perennial legislative proposal from Democrats, would provide $20,000 to $50,000 to each victim, many of whom are now 70 and older. Now, the idea has drawn support from conservatives who finally say the sterilization program violated individual rights.
But budget woes might hinder compensation efforts despite widespread support in the state legislature. The compensation proposal wasn’t included in the recently approved fiscal 2012 state budget. It could cost the state up to $150 million, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Legislators said they are weighing funding options such as using some of the money from the state’s share of the 1998 national tobacco product liability settlement.
“Most of the time, we’re thinking from the neck up, but this one started with me in the stomach, the intuition of it all,” Republican Rep. Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem, the speaker pro tem of the House, told the Wall Street Journal.
Laws in over 30 states allowed sterilzation and were not overturned by court rulings until the mid-20th century. The movement called for the sterilization of Americans deemed “socially or intellectually unfit.” Black women and poor white women were commonly sterilized for being “feeble minded” and promiscuous.
Some women entered doctors offices assuming they were having their appendix removed, but were sterilized instead.
“They cut me open like I was a hog,” Elaine Riddick told the Winston-Salem Journal. She was sterilized after having a son at age 14. “What do you think I’m worth? … There’s nothing that the state of North Carolina can do to justify what they did to me.”
Boys were often sterilized at school or by the recommendation of social workers.
Lynch says its time the state upholds the promise to compensate victims.
“I’m going to tell them I was 14 years old then, I’m 77 years old now,” he said. “It’s been too long already.”