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Sterile victims stand up, decry legacy of eugenics

Dahleen Glanton / Chicago Tribune | September 7 2006

RALEIGH, N.C. -- It is hard for Elaine Riddick to talk about how the state of North Carolina sterilized her without her knowledge at the age of 14, changing her life forever. But she manages to wipe away the tears and garner the strength to tell her story to anyone who will listen.

After Riddick became pregnant from a rape, doctors on the Eugenics Board of North Carolina decided in 1968 that she was too "feeble-minded" to ever be a good mother and wanted to ensure that she never would get pregnant again. So doctors tied her tubes and didn't tell her.

Thirty-eight years later, Riddick, a 52-year-old with a quiet demeanor, has emerged as a voice for thousands of victims of state-sponsored sterilizations that were part of the eugenics movement in the United States from the 1920s to the 1970s. Riddick and others are coming forward and forcing states to address their roles in a controversial social experiment that went awry.

"What they did to me was totally inhumane. Death would have been better because it would have been over," said Riddick, who has battled depression. "This is a story that must be told. So I pulled myself up from the hole . . . where I had hidden for many years. And when I told the story, I could hold my head up high for the first time."

The idea behind eugenics, a concept embraced by Nazi Germany, was to wipe out future poverty, crime and other social ills believed to result from genetic flaws.

By sterilizing the feeble-minded, mentally retarded, insane and epileptic, eugenicists believed they would ensure that undesirable traits would not continue through generations.

`It was welfare reform'

"It was welfare reform," said Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University and an authority on biomedical ethics. "There would be no need for a welfare system if there were nobody in it. So they said, `If you let us sterilize people, we will cut your taxes.'"

North Carolina had one of the most active and long-running programs. At least 7,500 poor African-Americans and whites, many of them welfare recipients, were tricked or forced to undergo sterilizations from 1929 to 1975. Throughout the United States, an estimated 65,000 people--overwhelmingly women--were involuntarily sterilized, Lombardo said.

"This was really genocide," said North Carolina state Rep. Larry Womble, who has fought unsuccessfully to get the General Assembly to provide financial reparations to 2,800 North Carolina victims believed still alive. "It cut off their bloodline and took away all of their dignity."

For decades, few spoke of the practice that targeted unwed teenagers, women with multiple children and some men, most of whom were on welfare, poor and illiterate and who lived at a time when authority was less likely to be questioned.

But in recent years, as victims have put aside their shame and broken their silence, several states, including Virginia, South Carolina, California and Oregon, have acknowledged their roles.

While 33 states established eugenics boards, Illinois never did, despite repeated efforts to get a bill through the General Assembly.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley in 2002 offered an apology and set up a study committee--the first of its kind in the nation--that recommended a state memorial, counseling and educational programs for the victims. The governor also approved a recommendation that information about the program be included in public school curricula.

State officials said they are working to establish an educational exhibit in the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, but so far the General Assembly has not designated money for any of the proposals.

Riddick, who attended the apology ceremony at the state Capitol where she and other victims received a standing ovation, is still waiting. And she continues to tell her story.

Riddick grew up in Winfall, N.C., a small cotton-farming town near the coast, with alcoholic parents who were in and out of jail. When she was 13, she said, her siblings were sent to an orphanage and she ended up "on the street" after her mother was sent to prison for attacking her abusive husband. And, Riddick said, an older man in the neighborhood repeatedly sexually assaulted her, getting her pregnant.

When she went to the hospital to have her baby, she was 14, fitting the profile for the eugenics board, which during its course sterilized more than 2,000 children, some as young as 10.

Her grandmother, who was illiterate, and her father, who often was drunk, were coerced into signing papers to have her sterilized, she said. Her grandmother later told Riddick that the state had threatened to send Riddick to an orphanage if she didn't comply.

"There were rumors that I was running around late at night and that I was promiscuous. But the problem was that I was illiterate and I had nobody to turn to. I was left on the street with no one to look after me," said Riddick, who lived off and on with her grandmother.

"They gave me a C-section and while I was there, they clipped, burned and tied my tubes so I could never have another child," said Riddick, who gave birth to a son whom her grandmother helped raise. "They just did it, with no medical follow-up or anything."

She said her son is now a successful businessman in North Carolina.

A year later, she began hemorrhaging and almost died, she recalled.

Comprehension at age 18

"I went to the doctor, and he told me I had been butchered." But Riddick still didn't fully understand what had been done until she married at age 18 and attempted to have a baby.

"It ruined my marriage and took away something God gave me as a woman--to bear children," said Riddick, who lived for a while in New York and later settled in Atlanta, where she held several jobs and is now unemployed.

"They decided when I was only 13 that I would never be able to take care of myself, and no amount of money will make me forgive them for that."

Though state boards ordered thousands of sterilizations, experts said many more occurred during that time, though not part of state-mandated programs.

Many women still don't know whether they were affected. In North Carolina, the official records of the program are sealed in state archives.

Women who believe they were victims of the eugenics program are asked to call the Department of Health and Human Services and place their names on a list. So far, officials said, they have received fewer than 70 inquiries; because of a lack of staffing, they have not begun to look into them.

"It some states, it is much harder to track because the paperwork no longer exists," said Johanna Schoen, a University of Iowa professor who exposed the eugenics program in North Carolina while working on her doctoral dissertation.

"I have come across several women who thought they were in the program and weren't. But that does not mean they were not sterilized, and it does not mean the state had nothing do with it," Schoen said.

Eighty-seven-year-old Addie Lee Anderson of Fayetteville, N.C., is one of them. She doesn't know exactly why she was sterilized in 1950. All she remembers is that the woman who owned the farm where Anderson and her husband were sharecroppers told her she wouldn't have any more children as she drove her from the hospital after giving birth to her eighth child.

At the time, Anderson fit the profile. Her husband was in jail, she was poor and she had more children than the state thought she could care for.

"During that time, I felt like a slave. When the lady told me that, I didn't know what to say," Anderson said. " . . . But I have come a long way now, and I know what they did to me was not right."

States out of eugenics business

No states now have eugenics programs, but Lombardo said there are lessons to be learned, especially as DNA becomes a widely used scientific tool.

"With DNA tests, we can actually identify specific diseases that are really hereditary, not just terms like feeble-mindedness which you can assign arbitrarily," Lombardo said.

"The concern is: Are we bracing for a new form of eugenics and would the government again get in the business of telling people whether they can have children or not based on their health status?"


 

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