Compensation for state-enforced sterilization: Money won't be enough

Raped and pregnant at age 13, orphaned by a runaway father and a mother in prison, Elaine Riddick already had many strikes against her when it was time for her son Tony to be born.

But worse was yet to come. Judged "feeble minded" and "promiscuous" by the North Carolina eugenics board, Riddick was sterilized against her will by the doctors who delivered her baby in tiny Winfall, N.C.

Since then, the Sandy Springs resident has become a vocal advocate for sterilization victims around the country, and has struggled to regain a sense of worth. It hasn't been easy.

"I hated myself for what they did to me," said the diminutive crusader.  "You can try to shake it all your life, but that shame is still going to be there."

This month North Carolina became the first of the 32 states with sterilization programs to consider compensating its victims. Estimates are that North Carolina could pay out $30 million to $100 million, a steep tab in a time of cutbacks.

For nearly 30 years Georgia also forcibly sterilized some of its citizens. But the state has not discussed compensating victims.

A task force appointed by the state-run N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation suggested that living victims each receive $50,000. The legislature must vote on the proposal. So far only 72 of the estimated 1,500 still alive have contacted the foundation.

Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University said reparations would be appropriate. "There are few examples -- perhaps slavery is the only one -- that are more troubling and where the state behaved more tragically and unforgivably than in the sterilization campaigns of the early and mid-20th century," said Wolpe. "They were based on an idea of both racial hierarchy and mental health and illness that are now completely discredited."

Riddick is one of more than 60,000 Americans, many of them poor and black, who were sterilized from the 1920s through the 1970s. Georgia, which sterilized 3,280 men and women from 1937 to 1963, apologized for its role in the eugenics movement in a 2007 resolution by the General Assembly.

But the legislators who sponsored bills offering that apology said Georgia is unlikely to see any move to provide reparations in the near future. "I am not aware of any suggestion that victims be compensated," said State Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, whose bill expressed "regret" but not an apology. "I am also not sure that you can quantify the damage in dollars and cents."

Yes you can, said Riddick. When she was 19 years old Riddick said her health and fertility were worth $1 million, and she sued North Carolina for that amount. Her complaint was denied. With the help of the ACLU she pursued appeals to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.

Today she says, "the price has gone up."

Speaking from her two-story apartment just outside the Perimeter, Riddick, 57, said $50,000 "won't pay my traveling expenses. . . You can't put a price on what I went through, what I've seen and what the state of North Carolina did to me. We’re talking about the value of life. I value my life, but they value my life at nothing."

A jury may debate the value of an injury inflicted by the state. But, during an economic recession, legislatures will be concerned with more practical matters. North Carolina is considering these payments while the state, like Georgia, has cut millions from the budget and is facing reduced revenues.

Despite those conditions, said State Rep. Earline Parmon, a Democrat from Winston Salem, North Carolina's House leadership supports the compensation proposal, which wouldn't be passed until May at the earliest, when the Legislature reconvenes for a short session.

"The states are facing the same kinds of crises that businesses and individuals are facing," she said, "but the fact of the matter is the state wronged some of its citizens, so it has the same responsibility to compensate them as any other entity would, because this was totally against the will of the people. It was without their consent and in many cases without their knowledge."

It was also, she might have pointed out, legal. In 1927 the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to forcibly sterilize people judged to be mentally ill, incompetent or "feeble minded." In his notorious opinion Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Holmes was voicing the philosophy of the eugenics movement, which aimed to improve the human species by selective breeding and culling undesirables from the gene pool. The movement, funded by such wealthy citizens as John D. Rockefeller and George Eastman of Eastman Kodak, was considered progressive at the time.

More than 30 states drafted sterilization laws and created eugenics boards that passed judgment on inmates of mental institutions and also those on welfare rolls or those recommended by social workers. Children as young as 8 years old were sterilized, and the reasons were often capricious.

In 1956, for example,  a 15-year-old girl at Gracewood Training School in Augusta (originally called the Training School for Mental Defectives) was recommended for sterilization because she was deaf and dumb. In 1950 the board heard the case of another girl at Gracewood, age 12, who "lies and steals and is a behavior problem."

Paul Lombardo, professor of law at Georgia State University, studied the Virginia case that led to the 1927 decision, and his research helped convince that state to repudiate that law and offer regrets for the results. Oregon, California, North Carolina and South Carolina followed suit, also offering apologies. Lombardo's 2008 book "Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell," demonstrated that Carrie Buck, involuntarily institutionalized after she was raped and impregnated, chose as her lawyer a man who supported eugenics and was in favor of sterilizations. Her lawyer, in Lombardo's words, "threw the trial."

As to whether the state should pay for a wrong, even when it is legally inflicted, Lombardo said there are many precedents for such payments. Prisoners who are exonerated by DNA evidence are frequently paid a fixed amount for each year of imprisonment, he said.

Therefore pleading poverty is disingenuous, he said. "We have [funds] to make it right when the government makes mistakes in some areas. Why not here?" he said. "The states ought to put their money where their mouth was."

Lombardo said states also need to move quickly, while the victims are still living. But some victims see the dilatory response as a purposeful tactic. Nial Ramirez, now 65, was sterilized in North Carolina at age 18. "They own up to it," said Ramirez, now living in Union City, Ga., "and talk, and talk, and talk, and they  ain't doing nothing but talking. They think I’m going to die. But I’m not!"

Like Ramirez, Riddick says she's had lifelong problems from the sterilization, which caused persistent hemorrhaging and led eventually to a hysterectomy. But the perceived insult from the state also drove Riddick to complete college and prove her abilities. Married to Air Force Sgt. Paul Adams, Riddick seems to have transcended her troubled beginnings.

But the injustices she suffered have also given her a mission and a purpose, she said: To help other victims.

"The only thing I can do," she said, standing against a penthouse window, looking out on the Atlanta skyline, "is I have to be mouthy and talk back."

Who to call

Victims seeking more information about North Carolina's sterilization program should call (877) 550-6013. Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, said there is no national clearinghouse for sterilization information, and that her foundation handles calls from many states, including Georgia.