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NC Sterilization Victims Denied Compensation; Watauga County Has Dark Past Involving Eugenics Practices

By Greg Hince

July 5, 2012. Victims of involuntary sterilization in North Carolina will not receive compensation after state legislators voted against eugenics compensation program funding as part of the 2012-2013 fiscal year budget adjustment bill, House Bill 947, last month. It is estimated more than 7,600 victims were sterilized in North Carolina between 1929 and 1974, and there is evidence to suggest that a number of Watauga County residents could have been victimized in the early 1940s.

The state only started verifying victims this year and has verified 146 thus far, but estimates that 1,500 to 2,000 are still alive. Victims from Ashe, Wilkes, Catawba, Lenoir and Caldwell counties have been verified, but no victims have been verified from Watauga County. Victims included men, women and children of all races, many of who were poor, undereducated, institutionalized, sick or disabled.

The debate over North Carolina’s eugenic past was largely launched by “Against Their Will”, a 2002 series in the Winston-Salem Journal in which reporters and historians exposed the scientific flaws and racial biases of eugenics program through research and testimonials from victims, doctors and bureaucrats.

One piece, entitled “Comes a Stranger: Geneticist Combed Watauga, Creating, Studying Family Trees” by Danielle Deaver, tells the story of geneticist Dr. William Allan’s personal visits to Watauga County residents in the early 1940s in an attempt to map family trees and trace diseases and abnormalities across generations. In the article, some of those closest to him suggest that Allen, at the time the Head of the Department of Medical Genetics at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, was sterilizing Watauga residents using a small strip of paper placed in the mouth.

“Well, I understand that word got around in the back country that they were sneaking around and sterilizing them with these things and the people didn’t want to take it. At least some of them didn’t,” Allan’s daughter, Elizabeth Allan Berger, is quoted as saying in the story.

Allan spent time at family reunions and visited hundreds of houses attempting to map family trees and deduce what family members were “feebleminded“ in order to weed out abnormalities and prevent those people from reproducing.

He picked Watauga County for its small, multi-generational population. He felt that genetic lines were pure since there hadn’t been much immigration to the area. He wanted to collect family trees, or pedigrees, for all 18,000 people in the county. He collected about 75 percent of pedigrees that went back to the original Watauga settlers before he died in April 1943.

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) named its highest honor for Allan in 1961. The William Allan Award is presented annually to recognize “substantial and far-reaching scientific contributions to human genetics carried out over a sustained period of scientific inquiry and productivity”, and comes with a $10,000 prize. Allan wrote his first study in 1916, about the genetics of migraines; by the end of his life, he had written or co-written 93 papers

The hand-drawn family trees are still kept in hundreds of folders inside boxes at the Dorothy Carpenter Medical Archives at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

In 1954, Dr. C. Nash Herndon, Allan’s protégé, wrote a paper, “Intelligence in Family Groups in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” that drew on data from Allan’s study. The study used IQ data that Allan collected from 223 people in 86 families in Watauga County to study IQ differences between husbands and wives.

He also used Allan’s work to study the effects of marriages between cousins. The rate of first-cousin marriages in Watauga County in the 40s was about 6.72 percent, well above American and European averages, which were below 1 percent. However, the study found the intelligence of the population was unaffected by this trend.

Though Allan was attempting to trace the heredity of disease, he was the first in a line of North Carolina’s promoters of negative eugenics. He pushed for a statewide bank of information that would catalog peoples’ genetic backgrounds to see if they were prospective parents. 

Rural residents were unfamiliar with the idea of birth control, and although condoms and other forms of contraceptives were legal in the 40s many pharmacies refused to carry them.

“They thought that this was going to keep them from having children and… so the men would, were, taking off but the ladies were crowding around,” Herndon said.

It often took the work of citizen activists to dispense birth control in Watauga County, as documented in Joanne Shoen’s book “Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare”. Shoen was also a contributor to “Against Their Will”.

Although North Carolina has acknowledged the injustices committed by the state sponsored Eugenics Program, little has been done to support victims.

The 2012-2013 budget will also cut funding for the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, established in 2010 by Governor Bev Perdue to provide justice and compensate victims. The foundation is currently in a state of flux.

“Our office is currently not funded, so we have no staff present and with the new budget we have no idea what the future holds,” Jill Lucas, Communications Director for the N.C. Department of Administration said. The foundation has had to stop intake and halt services for victims.

The statewide Eugenics Compensation Task Force initially recommended in January that $50,000 payments be made to living sterilization victims. The state House had agreed to provide compensation to victims who were alive as of March 1, 2010, but the effort faltered in the Senate.

Many Republicans argued that the aggregate costs of providing $50,000 to each living victim, at a total of $11.1 million, would make the plan unfeasible as part of the $20.2 billion budget agreement, and surmised that offering compensation would open the door for other groups to seek damages for previous misguided activities by the state.

North Carolina was responsible for the third most sterilizations of any US state. Even after the actions of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and World War II, North Carolina expanded its eugenics program while most states pulled back.

Sterilization laws were first challenged in 1927 in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200. In upholding the legality of such laws, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the opinion of the Court, and provided one of the most infamous quotes in Supreme Court history.

“It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Holmes said.

Buck v. Bell set the stage for more than 60,000 operations in the United States and was cited at the Nuremberg trials in defense of Nazi sterilization experiments. It has never been overturned.

For decades North Carolina’s Eugenics Board received funding from wealthy investors, including an heir to the Proctor & Gamble fortune, and members of the Rockefeller family, among others.

Kevin Begos, who wrote the lead story for “Against Their Will”, said that sterilization practices were entrenched in communities and families.

“It was really heart-wrenching to do some of the research and hear about boys as young as 10 being castrated and 13 year-old girls being raped and getting pregnant and then being sterilized,” Begos, who now works at Associated Press, said. “And a lot of the practices were used as a cover-up by mothers and fathers as a way to hide incest, and many of them signed for sterilizations, so there are many, many more victims we will never know about.”

Phil Lombardo, a historian who wrote the introduction for “Against Their Will” as well as “Three Generations, No Imbeciles”, a book about Buck v. Bell, said that North Carolina is one of only seven state to issue a formal apology, and 25 states have yet to even acknowledge sterilization practices and eugenics programs.

“The state said sorry, but they didn’t do anything,” Lombrado said. “How do we have money to pay to 9/11 victims, the victims of foreigners, or to flood victims every year, or the wrongfully imprisoned, but not to sterilization victims, it’s just nonsense”

However, Lombardo made it clear that sterilization was not an epidemic confined to North Carolina, or the United States, and is an ever-present problem.

“You can trace the history of places like Scandinavia, Japan, Peru, any other country and see these inhumane things carried out, even up to genital mutilation in some countries today,” Lombardo said. “But there, just like here, you need people to investigate and call for action to do what’s right for people now and victims of the past.”

All five parts of the “Against Their Will” series are available online at http://againsttheirwill.journalnow.com/. The series led directly to an apology from the governor
and was credited as the first effort in the nation to help victims of eugenics. For more information on the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation visit http://www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov/.