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Barely 40 years ago, it was not uncommon in North Carolina for a single mother on welfare or a patient in a mental hospital to be sterilized against her will. It wasn't just North Carolina; more than half of states in the U.S. had eugenics laws, and some of those laws persisted into the 1970s.
But North Carolina is now considering compensating its sterilization victims. And a state panel heard from some of them today. Julie Rose of member station WFAE was there, and she has this report.
JULIE ROSE: They were mostly poor and uneducated, both black and white and often just girls.
Ms. ELAINE RIDDICK: My name is Elaine Riddick. I was sterilized at the age of 14.
ROSE: The state of North Carolina said Riddick was promiscuous and didn't get along well with others.
Ms. RIDDICK: I couldn't get along well with others because I was hungry. I was cold. I was a victim of rape.
ROSE: Pregnant from that rape, Riddick gave birth to her only son in 1968. During the C-section, doctors sterilized her. A consent form shows the X mark of her illiterate grandmother. Riddick didn't know she'd been sterilized until she was 19, married and ready to have more kids. She's now 57 and shared her story, through tears, at a hearing of state officials today in Raleigh.
Ms. RIDDICK: I have to get out what the state of North Carolina did to me. They cut me open like I was a hog.
ROSE: Nearly 7,600 men, women and children as young as 10 were sterilized under North Carolina's eugenics laws. While other state sterilization laws focused mainly on criminals and people in mental institutions, North Carolina was one of the few to expand its reach to women who were poor.
Sterilization was seen as a way to limit the public cost of welfare. Social workers would coerce women to have the operation under threat of losing their public assistance.
That's how 65-year-old Nial Ramirez lost her ability to have more children. She was too ill to attend today's hearing but sent her daughter, Deborah Chesson, with a letter to read.
Ms. DEBORAH CHESSON: At the young age of 17, I was pregnant with my daughter Deborah, living in a household with my mom and my siblings. My mother was a single mom, and times were tough. So we were on public assistance, just trying to survive. I was told that if I continued to have children, the livelihood of my family would suffer greatly.
ROSE: The North Carolina Eugenics Board was created in 1933 and operated for decades with little public scrutiny. It used rudimentary IQ tests and gossip from neighbors to justify sterilization of young girls from poor families who hung around the wrong crowd or didn't do well in school; girls like 13-year-old LeLa Dunston, who'd just had a baby. Dunston is now 63.
Ms. LeLA DUNSTON: I need a reward or something, some kind of compensation for all this that they done put me through.
ROSE: North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue has now appointed a task force to consider compensating victims. In 1974, the Eugenics Board was disbanded, and the state formally apologized in 2002. Six other states have issued similar apologies, but none has compensated victims.
If North Carolina lawmakers decide to pay victims, it could be costly. While the number of sterilizations in other states slowed down after the Nazi atrocities of World War II came to light, North Carolina's eugenics program ramped up. An estimated 3,000 victims are still living and could qualify for compensation.
North Carolina State Representative Larry Womble is a key driver of the state's effort to make amends.
State Representative LARRY WOMBLE (Democrat, North Carolina): We have done some things that we should never have done before. And I'm glad that some of them are living long enough to see that something is being done. You are not forgotten.
ROSE: The North Carolina Eugenics Task Force will make a preliminary recommendation on compensating victims in August.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Raleigh.
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