Sterilized Without a Choice

December 10, 2011


An article published on 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?”

Governor Perdue

Governor Perdue

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?

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6 Comments on “Sterilized Without a Choice”

  1. kelseymlee Says:

    This is a terrible thing to hear about, and it is hard to believe that it happened in the United States. I do not feel that this even qualifies as a problem of dirty hands, because under no circumstances do I believe that the state has the power to sterilize people without their knowledge.The choice to have children is a very personal decision, and the state does not have any authority to intervene in that part of a person’s life, especially in the United States.

    To qualify as a dilemma of dirty hands, I believe that there has to be a much worse consequence by not taking the action they did. In this instance, the only consequence would have been that people would have been able to decide on their own whether or not to have children. So, yes, the state definitely “dirtied” their hands, but they were not forced to. They made a poor decision, and it ruined many people’s hopes and futures. I do not believe anybody really benefited from being forced into sterilization. The state really was not in a dilemma, what they did was just plain and morally wrong, and it never should have been done. Their problem easily could have been avoided by just staying out of people’s personal lives.

  2. scottmha Says:

    To begin, great topic choice and I found your article very interesting. People often don’t know that sterilization was often commonly practiced in these times even in Michigan. More than 35 states actually practiced sterilization. It is estimated that over 3000 people were “sterilized” here in Michigan. Without a doubt this is quite a blemish to the states and the countries history, there will never be any justification or fair compensation for these actions.
    Although this is radical, I believe what the United States were no different from the nazi regime by performing these operations. Think about what the Nazi’s wanted, a world where only the “superior race” would exist and wouldn’t be contaminated by other “inferior” groups. So they decided to remove all other groups, namely Jews, to try and “purify” the world. This is now different from the Eugenics (the process of selectively breeding mammals to obtain desired characteristics) that the United States practiced. Our country wished to remove those who had the characteristic they deemed unsuccessful for raising children, therefor “purifying” our population. By removing these people, they can’t reproduce, therefore it was assumed this characteristic would never be inherited and eventually disappear from the population- evolution at its finest.
    To me, the problem stems from acting before we completely know all the details of a situation. This was during the human genomic area where we were just figuring out shocking details, to the science world at least, about gene expression and regulation. This problem could’ve been avoided, if only they would have waited to learn more about genetics and eugenics before they took such radical action.

  3. beaurh Says:

    The issue at hand is eugenics. Through sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals, we are picking whom is sufficient to breed and populate in our community. As said above, the most famous example of practiced eugenics is Nazi Germany. Although believing that the individual is benefitting from sterilization, if the patient is uncertain and unsure about the procedure, there is no difference between the practices in North Carolina and the practices performed by the Nazis.

    There is no issue of Dirty Hands in the article stated. It is incredibly immoral to sterilize a women without their knowledge. There is no ambiguity.

    Dirty Hands arises with forced sterilization of the mentally challenged. Many mentally challenged people are incapable of taking proper care of a child and it is unfair to put that responsibility on the state. The majority of cases concerning mentally challenged conceiving are accidental. Many mentally retarded adolescents do not have control over their hormones and participate in sexual intercourse without any idea or thought of the terrible consequences that can follow. Also, many mental retardations are caused by heritable genetic mutations. A child is much more likely to have mental handicaps if his or her parents do.

    Sterilization is immoral by definition, it rids a human of his or her most human quality – conception. But do the negative consequences of inappropriately having a child outweigh this immorality? It is extremely difficult to say yes or no, and please respond with your insight.

  4. bmazus Says:

    Before I read this post I had no idea about this. I find this to be extremely disturbing and upsetting. Over this period of time the state was essentially forcing sterilization upon people who they believed were inferior to others. This is essentially a minor case of human extermination. I believe that anybody who was in any part responsible for this, or at any point had anything to do with sterilizing somebody by state orders, should be ashamed of themselves.
    Having children, and extending your own family lineage is not a privilege, it is a natural right. Nobody should ever be able to deem somebody ‘unfit’ to have children because they are not smart, or because they are not of a particular race. What I do not understand is how the federal government even allowed this to occur. It almost makes me wonder if they actually knew what was occurring. To take it further not only did the state give themselves the right to deem whether one could have children, they would scheme people into signing forms that did this to relatives? It almost does not make sense. No dollar amount can fix this. The state government could offer me all the money in the world and I would never trade the ability to have a child for it. The joy of raising a child is priceless and I look forward to it. It is a shame that this was ever taken away from anyone, and especially by the “leaders” of our country.

  5. habavol Says:

    Wow, I have never heard of this, it’s truly terrible. I can’t believe something like this could happen in the United States. It is completely wrong that the people were basically forced to, and some of them didn’t even know it had happened. I couldn’t even imagine how upset I would be if I found out I couldn’t have children. That’s something that is so important and it’s completely unfair and unjust to the victims of this incident. I find it a kind of decent gesture that they are paying the victims of this but still, I don’t believe that money can make up for something like this.

  6. Brian Hall Says:

    It is difficult to see poorly thought-out applications of Eugenics such as this. Nobody should be forcibly sterilized (aside from perhaps rapists), and the fact that they were never told what happened is absolutely appalling. This is similar to this incident :
    in which the U.S. government conducted unsolicited medical experiments on people with disastrous results, or even worse, the decades of lobotomies performed on thousands of mentally deficient individuals ( for a tragic, though relevant example of what sort of barbaric things used to be acceptable in this country).

    Many countries used to be practicioners of Eugenics before the Nazis, in fact. The discovery of what the Nazis and the Japanese were doing in their camps (see Unit 731 for a truly disgusting example) pretty much caused the world to lose its appetite for this sort of thing however.

    Eugenics could be a positive ideal, but one which in practice does not seem to be realistically achievable without either a great deal of violence or an unheard of and frankly improbable level of social cooperation and agreement about who is allowed to reproduce. There are many people (myself included), who disagree with the methods traditionally used to promote Eugenics, but do to some extent agree with the general principle.

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