Without Consent

When Mary English, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was 22, a routine trip to the doctor left her infertile. The doctor told her “they had a procedure and if I went with this procedure, I wouldn’t have to worry about birth control,” recalls English. What the doctor failed to tell her, English says, is that the procedure would leave her sterile. Now, lawmakers in North Carolina are seeking compensation from the state for victims of the sterilizations.

English is one of thousands of women in North Carolina who was sterilized between 1929 and 1974 as part of the eugenics movement, which led to laws in many states that were designed to keep mental illness and social ills, such as promiscuity and criminal behavior, from being passed from generation to generation. The sterilization of mostly poor women deemed likely to reproduce children with these qualities was legal in many states.

Money won’t alleviate the emotional toll of sterilization, but it can help survivors get “the right kind of professional counseling and live some semblance of a normal life,” says Rep. Earline W. Parmon (D-N.C.), one of the bill’s sponsors. North Carolina’s House Appropriations Committee agreed that a commission would study the bill and report recommendations on whether to compensate victims and how much, by April 1, 2008.

Sterilization was legal at the time, so it may be difficult to get financial compensation unless a woman can prove the sterilization was performed negligently, says Cheryl E. Amana, a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham.

But some say the broad reach of North Carolina’s sterilization program makes it distinctive. “North Carolina targeted a broader group of people than any other state did,” says Johanna Schoen, author of Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare (The University of North Carolina Press; $19.95). “North Carolina was the only state in the nation where sterilizations were not restricted to people in mental institutions. That basically meant that social workers could go out and look for people to sterilize.”