WUNC is currently running a chilling story which highlights an unsavory chapter in North Carolina’s history; I heard it last night while running some errands. While disturbing in-and-of itself, NC’s eugenics campaign of the mid-1950s teaches us that politics and injustice can easily walk hand-in-hand. Especially when money is involved.
The focus is mainly on Mecklenburg County, which sterilized 485 women out of the 7,600 total sterilized statewide during the entire existence of the NC Eugenics Board. While many states had eugenics programs in place, all but one required referral by a doctor (usually working in a mental hospital or prison). Only NC gave that power to social workers. The justification hinged on the stability of the welfare system; the most common welfare recipients at the time were single mothers with 4-5 children. To stem what politicians deemed a systemic problem in danger of spiraling out of control, social workers in Mecklenburg County were encouraged to consider sterilization as a solution for a variety of situations. This lead to a litany of unfortunate choices.
As an example, in Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare, Johanna Schoen details a story in which a social worker made a decision for a 13 year old girl with a mother institutionalized and a father that severely abused her. With no safe place to send her, the worker recommended the girl for eugenic sterilization, reasoning that pregnancy would only make a bad situation worse. With one fell swoop, the State took away the young girl’s ability to ever have a child of her own.
North Carolina has been forced to face its past in recent years, and is considering reparations for the ~3000 state-sterilized women still alive today. But how do you put a price on foregone memories and a lifetime of emotional torment?
Like the majority of Nazi Germany during WWII, the populace of North Carolina turned a blind eye to horrendous social injustice in the 1950s (directly after that war!). Why? Because eugenics had the blessing of the government; it was wrapped in an ad campaign complete with photo contests for the “fittest family.”
The takeaway here is that attempts by the government to engage in social engineering must be examined with a critical eye. Government’s role in a free society is to provide basic services and maintain infrastructure, not to dictate who gets to have children, who gets to go to school and who gets to be married.