An article published on nytimes.com titled, “Thousands Sterilized, a State Weighs Restitution” talks about how thousands of people in North Carolina were sterilized between 1933-1977 without fully understanding the procedure, and most were forced into the operation or else their welfare checks would no longer be sent.
Social workers were given the authority to recommend sterilization to “uneducated young girls who had been raped by older men, poor teenagers from large families, people with epilepsy and those deemed to be too “feeble-minded” to raise children.” The article explains how “[this was] an experiment in genetic engineering once considered a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool.”
IQ tests were commonly used to decide if a person was smart enough to have children, but as we all know, one test does not show what a person is capable of. A lot of the people tested worked in the cotton fields which meant that even though they were not “smart” according to IQ tests, they were certainly capable of raising children successfully.
The article mentions that “the program, while not specifically devised to target racial minorities, affected black Americans disproportionately because they were more often poor and uneducated and from large rural families.” Women were also common recipients – “Nonwhite minorities made up about 40 percent of those sterilized, and girls and women about 85 percent.”
Now, the current Governor of North Carolina, Perdue, is trying to determine how much to compensate people who were sterilized. The state government is considering paying $20,000 to those who can prove that they were sterilized through the state, and not private doctors which was also common. The state also has to decide if they will pay only those victims who are alive, or if they should compensate any living family members as well. The biggest question raised is “How can you quantify how much a baby is worth to people?”
Secrecy is also important in this situation since most people do not want their spouses or co-workers to know what has happened to them. The article mentions how a woman (Who wanted to remain unnamed) “remembers being told as a teenager that she was getting an appendectomy,” but when she was 27 she started “having uterine trouble, a doctor requested her records and discovered that she had been sterilized in an operation that had been botched, her medical records show.” How crazy is it that she didn’t even realize she had been sterilized until at least 10 years after the procedure? She wants $50,000 or $100,000 from the state.
The article explains how other people were forced into being sterilized: “Social workers persuaded her illiterate grandmother to sign the consent form with an X” and “A social worker from the Washington County Department of Public Welfare suggested that she get sterilized. Mrs. Ramirez said she did not understand that the procedure was permanent and thought she had no choice.”
This article horrifies me. I do not think there is any way to justify what happened to these people, and I do not think any amount of money will make it right. I don’t really know what will make the situation right, but I am really happy I found this article and learned more about our country. 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States during that time, and I had no idea that a program like this even existed.
This situation definitely relates back to Martin Luther King. He explains that “any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” Even though this situation is not about directly about segregation, social workers are given the authority to decide if someone is good enough to have children which should be a right allowed to anyone. He further explains that “an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself” which is exactly the situation described in the article.
The fact that women were more like to be sterilized than men also concerns me because women are the ones actually having the children. Social workers decided that if a woman had too many children or was raped or her parents did not want her to have children she could and should be sterilized. The worst thing about this “project” is that most of the people undergoing the procedure had no idea what was happening to them. Imagine growing up and dreaming of a family, then one day realizing that is no longer a possibility.
Do you think there is any way to compensate the people who have been sterilized? Would you even consider this a problem of dirty hands?