NC lawmakers OK payments for victims of forced sterilization

By Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent

(CNN) — It was a horrific chapter in American history, but now some people who were sterilized against their will by the government may be getting compensation for what they endured.

After going back and forth on the issue for 10 years, on Thursday the North Carolina legislature agreed to give $10 million to victims. If signed by the governor, North Carolina would become the first state to compensate sterilization victims.

“It’s been a long hard fight,” said state Rep. Larry Womble, who championed the cause. “We’re trying to correct a wrong.”

It’s believed that the government of North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people between 1929 and 1974. Of those, only about 200 have come forward, according to Charmaine Fuller-Cooper, former director of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation.

That would mean each victim would get about $50,000.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory still must sign the measure into law, and if he does, Charles Holt hopes to go to Raleigh and shake his hand.

Holt was 19 and living in an institution for boys in Butner, North Carolina when he was given a vasectomy without his consent.

“They sent me to the hospital and then they just put me in a room and she gave me gas and I just went off to sleep,” Holt remembers.

When he awoke, the nurse told him what they’d done. “I wasn’t happy,” he said.

From 1907 through the 1970s, more than 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized. Some, like Holt, were in institutions, while others were deemed “feeble-minded” or had “unfit human traits.” Others were children of alcoholics whose parents couldn’t care for them.

Thirty-three states had forced sterilization programs. California’s was the largest, sterilizing 20,000 people.

The programs were supported by some of the nation’s most respected doctors, lawyers, and social workers. Even the U.S. Supreme Court approved it, as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in one 1927 court case, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Under the eugenics laws in North Carolina, anyone could request that someone could be sterilized. Fuller-Cooper remembers reading about neighbors who recommended sterilization because they thought a young woman was sexually promiscuous. A board would then consider the request.

Fuller-Cooper remembers the first time she read the case files from the state eugenics board.

“I literally sat at my desk and cried for about 15 minutes,” she said.

If signed into law, payments are expected to be made in June, 2015.

CNN’s John Bonifield and Jennifer Bixler contributed to this report.

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