Commentary: Righting the wrong of eugenics

I thought I was unshockable. I thought I had heard, seen or studied most all of it: man’s inhumanity to man. Some of it resides on the periphery, stuff that occurred before I was born such as the atrocities of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. History is rife with those instances and more, but there are also modern examples: The Bosnian war in 1992 between ethnic Serbs, Muslims and Croats, or the 1994 Rwandan genocide where Hutus killed an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Tutsis. The ongoing strife in -- you name the Middle Eastern country -- between Sunni, Shia, Israeli and Palestinian.

For some reason, probably rooted in man’s DNA, we get in group think we can decide the destinies of people who either don’t look like us, worship like us, or we deem them unworthy of life. If we don’t kill them, we conclude that we can treat them like cattle, enslave them, or use them as human guinea pigs.

It was one of those stories that hit me in the face a couple of weeks ago. I was aware of the history of eugenics, a bio-social movement that was on the scene long before the Nazis came to power in Germany. If you were blind, dumb or had another -- what they called defect -- you were fair game for elimination or sterilization -- and that defect could be the color of your skin, size of your foot, or the color of your hair.

Before we condemn Hitler and the Nazis with trying to exterminate all those deemed inferior, there were others of their ilk. Many of them lived within the borders of the United States of America. Famous politicians, noted writers, scientists, captains of industry and inventors were part of the eugenics movement. More than 30 states had laws legalizing the practice of sterilization and laws preventing two people with the same “defect,” such as deafness, to marry.

Why do I bring this up now? Surely this practice fell out of favor after Hitler had his way. Not really, and that’s why I’m bringing it up in light of something that occurred in North Carolina.

From 1927 to 1977, the state had a eugenics board. Its main purpose was to keep the state’s welfare rolls small. If you had a IQ lower than 70, that made you eligible for sterilization. If you were poor and had a child out of wedlock, you were a candidate. All determined, not by a doctor but a social worker. And they could do it all without the victims’ consent.

Here’s the kicker. More than 70 percent of the sterilizations took place after 1945 when the atrocities of the Nazis were well known. But there is another famous example. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment started before the Nazis rose to power in 1932 and didn’t conclude until 1972.

North Carolina, of course, tried to hide its history, but as always, you can’t hide from the truth forever. The eugenics board kept good records, and in 2002, the governor of North Carolina, Bev Perdue, apologized for the misguided effort and formed a task force, the Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, to come up with a restitution plan.

As you might imagine, most of the 7,600 victims have passed on (California sterilized more than 20,000), but a couple of weeks ago, the task force made a recommendation that those victims still living, some 1,500 to 2,000, should receive $50,000 each. So far, however, only 72 victims have been identified. The governor will include that amount in her budget. In response to the task force, Perdue said in a statement, “While no amount of money will ever make up for the fact that government officials deprived North Carolinians, mostly women, of the possibility of having children -- and officials did so, in most cases, without the victims’ consent or against their will -- we must do something. I support the task force’s compensation proposal. I also agree that we should establish a permanent exhibit so that this shameful period is never forgotten.”

Now, even in the face of a possible $2 billion shortfall in the state budget, this wrong -- while it can never be made right -- has waited long enough to be recognized and restitution paid.