North Carolina moved closer to becoming the first U.S. state to compensate victims of a forced sterilization program when the state House approved legislation Tuesday to compensate living survivors $50,000 each.
North Carolina laws enforced from 1929 to 1974 allowed more than 7,600 people to undergo surgeries that left them unable to reproduce. Some chose to be sterilized as a form of birth control. Others were ordered to undergo surgeries by a state panel that found them mentally feeble, promiscuous, too poor to raise children, or otherwise inferior for parenthood. Up to 2,000 may be alive. The state has verified 132 victims, of whom 118 are still living.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, took the unusual step of giving up control of the legislative debate to argue in favor of the legislation. He said as a conservative he feels it's necessary to compensate people who were harmed by the power of the state.
"We had elected officials and leaders who had the audacity to know what the great race was," Tillis said. "There are people living today, all around this community, who have had this done to them and we have a chance to put it at rest."
The bill approved by the House 86-31 would set aside $11 million to pay $50,000 to victims of forced sterilization who were alive when the current legislative session opened last month. "We owe it to them. Not in a legal sense, but a moral sense," said House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake. "This was a sad program that lasted for several decades and has as its genesis a philosophy that is very alien to the American spirit."
The legislation was resisted by a handful of lawmakers who said compensation now meant taking from today's taxpayers to try to rectify the deeds of their ancestors. "We're punishing people who had nothing to do with this," said Rep. G.L. Pridgen, R-Robeson. Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, tried and failed to reduce the compensation from $50,000 to $20,000, citing another tight state budget this year more than four years after the recession began. "You know what kind of situation our budget is in," Blust said. "This still is enough money that the state says you were wronged."
But other legislators said years of studies and evaluation have made the time right for compensation. Then-Gov. Mike Easley formally apologized for the state eugenics program in 2002. "It's time to take on this sad chapter of our history and throw it to the winds," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.
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