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N.C. sterilization legacy examined; will the state pay?

Wake Forest conference focuses on program impact

WINSTON SALEM As N.C. lawmakers revive the question of victim compensation, students and professors gathered at Wake Forest University on Thursday for a two-day conference on the impact of the state’s eugenic sterilization program.

From 1929 to 1974, long after most states abandoned similar efforts, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina authorized sterilization of roughly 7,600 women, men and children who were deemed unfit for parenthood. Mental illness, epilepsy and “feeble-mindedness” – often gauged by low scores on now-discredited IQ tests – were grounds for sterilization, with or without the patient’s consent.

The university is hosting “Scarred for Life: The Legacy of Forced Sterilization at Home and Abroad.”

Journalism lecturer Phoebe Zerwick, who served on a state advisory panel on providing justice for victims and is a conference organizer, said she wanted to make sure students understand what happened.

“I’m an academic, and one thing we can do is carry on the education piece,” she said.

Among the speakers is Charmaine Fuller-Cooper, who led a three-year effort to track an estimated 1,500 survivors. The state created a Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which searched confidential medical records when survivors or family members inquired.

“I heard from women and men where their entire families were sterilized,” said Fuller-Cooper, who now works for the American Heart Association.

Public hearings around the state drew emotional testimony from people who had been sterilized, sometimes without understanding what was being done to them.

An effort to provide $50,000 in compensation for living victims failed last year.

This year House Speaker Thom Tillis has introduced a bill to revive the compensation, and new Gov. Pat McCrory has included $10 million in his budget for survivor compensation.

“Although the money will not right the wrongs of the past, the governor believes compensating eugenics victims is the right thing to do,” McCrory’s press secretary, Crystal Feldman, said this week. “He feels strongly that eugenics compensation should be included in the budget.”

Tillis and McCrory are both Republicans from Mecklenburg County, which led the state in the number of sterilizations. From 1946 to 1968, when the state kept its most detailed records, 485 people in Mecklenburg were sterilized through the eugenics board.

Phil Berger, president of the state senate, said senators will consider the request again. But while he called the eugenic sterilization program “a shameful episode in North Carolina history that must never be repeated,” he said lawmakers lack sufficient information about long-term costs of offering compensation.

Fuller-Cooper urged students to get active in demanding compensation.

“To call (the survivors) back and say, ‘We’re not going to do anything,’ that is a reflection on every one of us in this room,” she said.

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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