Culture & Ethics
Putting a Contemporary Face on Darwin-Inspired Eugenics
It’s easy to consign eugenics victims to an increasingly distant historical past, of interest primarily to scholars, but that gets harder to do when you read a heart-breaking article like the one in Friday’s New York Times. It profiles several men and women who are currently seeking reparations from North Carolina, a state considered to have been among the most aggressive in pursuing a program to goose the population’s genetic profile through forced sterilization.
Although North Carolina officially apologized in 2002 and legislators have pressed to compensate victims before, a task force appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue is again wrestling with the state’s obligation to the estimated 7,600 victims of its eugenics program.
The board operated from 1933 to 1977 as an experiment in genetic engineering once considered a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool.
Thirty-one other states had eugenics programs. Virginia and California each sterilized more people than North Carolina. But no program was more aggressive.
That’s 1977, all of 34 years ago. Who pushed this on the state’s citizens?
Wealthy businessmen, among them James Hanes, the hosiery magnate, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, drove the eugenics movement. They helped form the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947, and found a sympathetic bureaucrat in Wallace Kuralt, the father of the television journalist Charles Kuralt.
A proponent of birth control in all forms, Mr. Kuralt used the program extensively when he was director of the Mecklenburg County welfare department from 1945 to 1972. That county had more sterilizations than any other in the state.
“Human Betterment League” — that’s a rich one.
The victims profiled here were mostly deemed to be mentally deficient but their resumes since then don’t sound that way, nor do the articulate comments attributed them. They aren’t elderly, hardly even of retirement age. They disagree about what kind of reparation would put paid to the injustice that was done to them. One woman, 65-year-old Nial Ramirez, is suitably righteous in her indignation:
She does not want an apology, and she will not settle for the amounts being discussed.
“What would an apology do for me?” she said. “You don’t know what my kids were going to be. You don’t know what kids God was going to give me. Twenty thousand dollars ain’t gonna do it, honey.”