North Carolina Sets $50K Compensation for Victims of Eugenics Program

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A task force assigned to the grim undertaking of deciding how much to compensate as many as 2,000 living victims of a decades-long North Carolina sterilization program finally settled on a number on Tuesday.

Each person who was forced to undergo surgical procedures to render them incapable of reproduction under the state's notorious eugenics programs should receive $50,000, the Governor's Task Force to Determine the Method of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina's Eugenics Board announced.

The five-member task force was established via an executive order by Gov. Beverley Purdue in March 2011. Purdue said she backed the compensation proposal, as well as the creation of a permanent exhibit so this shameful period will never be forgotten.

Between 1929 and 1974 , the North Carolina Eugenics Board sterilized an estimated 7,600 individuals in an attempt to weed out mental illness, social misbehavior, epilepsy and other disabilities from the gene pool. Sterilization was touted as one of several solutions to lowering poverty and illegitimacy in the state, leading officials to increasingly focus on the sterilization of African-Americans and women, the North Carolina Justice For Sterilization Victims Foundation reports.

The North Carolina Eugenics Board, technically a part of the Department of Public Welfare, became a state agency in 1933. Before the program was popularized in the late 1940s, sterilization was primarily focused on individuals residing in state institutions.

About three dozen states had similar eugenics programs, especially prior to World War II. However, North Carolina's lasted the longest and was reportedly one of the most aggressive -- for instance, it was the only state that allowed social workers to petition for the sterilization for members of the public.

Charmaine Fuller Cooper, the executive director of the North Carolina Justice For Sterilization Victims Foundation, a state agency, told Reuters the task force proposal marks the first time a state has gone beyond apologies and taken steps to compensate victims.

The task force recommendation will be sent to Purdue on Feb. 1, when she will add her own recommendation to the proposal before sending it to state lawmakers when she submits her budget to the Legislature in May. Although the initiative reportedly has bipartisan support, persuading them to pay out what could be as much as $100 million could be a challenge since North Carolina is predicting a $2 billion budget shortfall for its fiscal year in 2013.

As of now, the state has only verified 72 living victims, although officials estimate there are between 1,500 and 2,000 survivors remaining.  The State Center for Health Statistics reports there may have been as many as 2,944 living victims as recently as 2010.

The North Carolina state legislature abolished the eugenics program in 1977, while involuntary eugenics laws were later repealed in 2003. A state House of Representatives study committee established in 2008 called for the compensation of $20,000 for each living victim, a proposal that was eventually denied.

The term eugenics refers to the intentional and selective breeding of humans and animals to rid the population of characteristics deemed unfit by those administering the practice. The movement gained an international following in the early 20th century, when it was supported by the likes of Leonard Darwin -- the son of Charles Darwin -- Winston Churchill and President Theodore Roosevelt.

More than 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the 33 states that enacted sterilization laws in the first half of the 20th century.

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