North Carolina’s shocking history of sterilization

North Carolina’s shocking history of sterilization

Forced sterilization was the law in 32 U.S. states, and actually inspired the Nazis. We’re just learning the truth

North Carolina's shocking history of sterilization(Credit: Provided by Willis Lynch)
Adapted from “For the Public Good” from The New New South

People generally have two reactions when they hear about American eugenics programs for the first time: the first is shock, and the second is distancing. How could those people have done that to them?

Most have heard of the program in Nazi Germany, in which more than 400,000 people considered unworthy of life — those with hereditary illnesses, but also the dissident, the idle, the homosexual, and the weak — were targeted for forced sterilization beginning in the 1930s. Few realize that the some of the inspiration for Germany’s eugenics program, and even the language for the Nuremberg racial hygiene laws, which among other restrictions banned sexual intercourse between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, came from eugenicists who had been practicing for years in the United States. Some 60,000 American citizens were sterilized, often under coercion or without consent.

Returning from my first visit with Willis Lynch, I met my in-laws, in town from Northern Virginia, for dinner in Durham, N.C. Lynch was sterilized at age 14 on the recommendation of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, which determined that he was unfit to father children. When I told them about all he had been through, they were outraged. They had never heard of forced sterilizations taking place in the United States, but blamed their ignorance on where they grew up. “I’m from the North,” said my mother-in-law, who had assumed that Lynch, now 80, is black (he is white). “We didn’t have things like that there.”

I went home and looked it up. Pennsylvania, her home state, never passed a eugenics law, but managed to sterilize 270 people anyway, and also to perform the first known eugenics-motivated castration, in 1889. The first state to enact a eugenics-based sterilization law was Indiana, in 1907; it was followed two years later by Washington and California. Eventually 32 states would pass such legislation. Internationally, the list of countries with a history of forced sterilization includes Canada, Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, Iceland, India, Finland, Estonia, China, Peru, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Uzbekistan.

Though North Carolina did not sterilize the greatest number of people (that distinction belongs to California, where 20,000 were sterilized), the state’s Eugenics Board was notorious for its aggressiveness. While many states confined their sterilization programs to institutions, North Carolina allowed social workers to make recommendations based on observations of “unwholesome” home environments or poor school performance. The state’s program was also one of the longest lasting, increasing its number of sterilizations while others were winding down. Between 1929 and 1974, more than 7,600 North Carolinians were sterilized. Like Willis Lynch, many of the victims were children, and consent was provided by relatives or guardians who feared the loss of welfare benefits or other consequences if they refused.

Over more than a decade, sterilization victims waited for North Carolina to make things right. Lynch, for his part, testified at state hearings, gave interviews to newspapers and magazines, and talked regularly by phone with other victims. For years, not much materialized: an apology from Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, expressions of regret and sympathy from his successor, Beverly Perdue, also a Democrat.

Then in 2012, something remarkable happened: A Perdue-appointed task force that had been listening to testimonies from Lynch and others like him for almost two years recommended a package of compensation for the victims of eugenics, and the state’s Republican-led and oft-divided House of Representatives supported the measure in a bipartisan effort. The plan included equal monetary payments to victims, access to mental health resources, and a program of public recognition and education that would ensure that no one would ever forget what happened to them. It began to look like North Carolina would be the first in the nation to address the legacy of eugenics, and victims imagined what they might do with the restitution: pay bills, fix up their homes, visit distant relatives.

The members of the task force were united in their recommendation, but the journey to a proposal that satisfied the victims had not been easy. They’d listened to many hours of painful testimony from sterilized men and women and their families, and had reviewed thousands of pages of supporting documents: medical records, reports from the Eugenics Board, propaganda in favor of eugenics-based sterilization. They’d looked at the faulty science behind eugenics, as well as North Carolina’s unequal targeting of poor, vulnerable, and minority citizens. They’d considered actuarial data to estimate the number of living victims, and calculated the potential total cost of compensation. Though they acknowledged that no amount of money can pay for the harm done by compulsory sterilization, they did, in fact, put a number on the line: $50,000 for each living victim, $50 million total.

But some wondered: Can you put a price on reproductive ability? And is it appropriate, in a time of austerity, to make such large monetary payments, especially when it won’t right the wrongs? Should today’s taxpayers be responsible for something that happened decades ago? Though the effort to include the task force’s recommendations in the House budget had been bipartisan, the measure faced more dissent from the G.O.P.-controlled Senate: The state can’t afford to pay for something that won’t fix any problems, and it was a long time ago, anyway. It wasn’t us.

It is human nature to distance oneself from what now seems cruel, violent, reprehensible. We tell ourselves that we would not have done that, that our country is better than that now. But that same distance — I am not like that, I am better — is what motivated the first eugenicists and their followers.

Like Willis Lynch, Francis Galton was born into a family of seven children, though more than 90 years earlier and thousands of miles away. The circumstances of his early childhood in England were quite different: His father was a wealthy banker, his mother the daughter of physician Erasmus Darwin, making Francis Galton a cousin to the father of the theory of evolution. The Galton family also included a number of prominent gunsmiths, iron mongers, athletes, and Quakers.

Under the tutelage of a doting older sister, Galton showed exceptional intellectual promise even before he was school-aged. He knew his capital letters by 12 months, could read at 2-and-a-half, and could sign his own name by 3. The day before he turned 5, Galton boasted in a letter to his sister: “I am four years old and can read any English book. I can say all the Latin Substantives and Adjectives and active verbs besides 52 lines of Latin poetry. I can cast up any sum in addition and multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10. I can also say the pence table. I read French a little and I know the Clock.” When he finally entered school, he was surprised and disappointed that his classmates did not share his enthusiasm or facility for reciting the “Iliad” or Walter Scott’s “Marmion.” He was sent to a French boarding school at age 8, and at 16, left secondary school to study medicine (a pursuit he later abandoned).

As an adult, Galton had a varied and peripatetic career. He traveled to Africa for anthropological work, discovered the anticyclone, created the first weather map, pioneered the first system of fingerprinting, and developed a “Beauty-map” of the British Isles that compared the relative attractiveness of women. (London had the most beautiful women, according to his research, Aberdeen the ugliest.) He is best known, however, as the father of modern eugenics, an area of study partially inspired by cousin Charles Darwin’s work. Less than a month after the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” Galton wrote, in an admiring letter to his cousin: “I have laid it down in the full enjoyment of a feeling that one rarely experiences after boyish days, of having been initiated into an entirely new province of knowledge, which, nevertheless, connects itself with other things in a thousand ways.” Galton was interested in the potential implications of Darwin’s work on heredity and evolution: Could these principles be used, through selective breeding, to enhance the human gene pool? Likely influenced by the achievements of his own illustrious family, Galton believed that talent and ability are transferred genetically rather than by environment. To Galton’s mind, his particular aptitude for geography, language, and the sciences came not so much from his education and privilege as from his eminent forebears.

Improving human societies through selective breeding was not a new idea, even in the 1800s. In ancient Greece, deformed babies were killed at birth, unwanted ones abandoned to the elements. Spartan elders inspected every newborn for potential contribution to the state — weak babies were dropped into a chasm — and the strongest men and women were encouraged to procreate (including outside of marriage). In the “Republic,” Plato argued that “the best of either sex should be united with the best as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible.” The goal was the collective good. If only the strongest and smartest reproduced, then their offspring would, over time, benefit everyone through their industry, bravery, creativity, and strength.

But the term eugenics was not coined until 1883, when Galton published his fifth book, “Inquiries into Human Faculty and Development.” In it, he combined the Greek word eu, meaning good, with the suffix -genes, meaning born, and defined eugenics as “the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.” He identified both positive eugenics (encouraging the breeding of the best) as well as negative eugenics (discouraging and even preventing the unfit from procreation), though he found the former more practical and socially palatable. Arguing that religion and custom had always strongly influenced breeding and marriage, Galton proposed that eugenics, with its ultimate goal of improving human societies, could be introduced to the general public as a new and compelling religion.

With his amateur background in anthropology, Galton classified humans along a line of “Mediocrity,” or average talents. Those above average, especially the most talented, should be encouraged to procreate within their classes, early and often. Those below average, especially the lowest-ranking, should be encouraged to abstain or, at the very least, refrain from tainting the bloodlines of their superiors. He had only a few vague suggestions about how this could be accomplished: intelligent and well-born women should be encouraged to marry at 21 or 22, promising couples provided with inexpensive housing, social inferiors encouraged to regard celibacy as noble self-sacrifice, and habitual criminals segregated, monitored, and denied the opportunity to produce offspring. “What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly,” he asserted. His vision was Utopian; the English race, after a few generations, would be “less foolish, less excitable, and politically more provident.” Men of special ability, like himself and his cousin, would be less rare, and would be able to contribute more than their fair share to the general population.

Galton soon realized a problem with positive eugenics: Eminence generally appeared later in life, often after the opportunity to marry and produce children. To address this problem, he established London’s Anthropometric Laboratory, the world’s first mental testing center, which sought not only to provide individuals with information about their own abilities, but also to serve as a collection of data for Galton and other scientists. These early tests, offered for three pence each to subjects ranging in age from 5 to 80, were unlike the written test Willis Lynch would take, years later, though their goal was the same: determination of ability or potential. Galton’s tests involved a variety of largely physical measurements: grip strength, head size, tactile sensitivity, breathing capacity, and visual and auditory acuity. His Anthropometric Laboratory collected data on more than 9,000 people, and although there is little evidence that they found much use in the information cards they received, his studies of the data eventually produced the statistical concepts of standard deviation and percentile ranking.

Negative eugenics — preventing those deemed unfit from reproducing — was considerably more challenging, at least as envisioned by Galton. It was not reasonable to expect most people to live a celibate life simply for the betterment of the gene pool, and monitoring ex-cons and other undesirables  was equally daunting. Though the British Eugenics Education Society, founded in 1907, campaigned for sterilization and marriage restrictions for mentally ill citizens, negative eugenics remained mostly the subject of political debate in Britain, and legislation enforcing sterilization of the unfit was never passed. Galton died in 1911 without seeing his “new religion” realized. Despite the genetic promise of his intellectual gifts, he also died childless.


The American eugenics movement is often characterized as a progressive folly for its faith in science and its big-government intrusiveness, but the truth is somewhat more complicated. The American Eugenics Society counted among its members some of the country’s most influential Progressive Era businesspeople, philanthropists, and activists, including J.P. Morgan Jr., Mary Duke Biddle, and Margaret Sanger, but the group of scientists and eugenicists who founded it also included well-known racists and anti-Semites. Early outreach efforts often included a mix of public health education and racist, anti-immigration messages.

The Fitter Families for Future Firesides competitions, sponsored by the Eugenics Society starting in 1924, provided one way of reaching out to rural white Americans. Held in state fairs across the country, the contests originated as Better Babies competitions and exhibitions that were meant to educate the public about infant health and mortality. Fitter Families contests, with the goals of collecting data on hereditary traits and spreading the message of eugenics to a wider population, invited entire families to submit to screenings for health, character, and intelligence. Those scoring highest received awards and medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage” and had their photographs taken for the local papers. Following an examination, a family might listen to a Galtonesque lecture on the importance of mating the best with the best; browse an exhibit about comparative literacy rates of foreign, African-American, and native-born white Americans; or read about the social costs of incarcerating the mentally deficient.

At the 1926 Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, a poster equipped with flashing lights informed fairgoers that “every 48 seconds someone is born in America who will never grow up beyond the mental age of 8” and that “crime costs America $100,000 every second.” The poster also claimed that  “few normal persons go to jail.” The message received by the “Fittest Families?” You are carrying the burden of the least fit, who should not be having so many children. In one way or another, you will pay for the children of undesirable parents: to feed and clothe them when their parents cannot, to care for them in institutions, and later, to imprison them.

Outside of state fairs and exhibitions, this fear of social dependency had already primed the culture for an embrace of negative eugenics. Large-scale asylums for the homeless and mentally ill, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, raised fears that increasing numbers of handicapped citizens were a drain on public resources. The country’s first major immigration law, the Immigration Act of 1882, specifically prohibited entry by any “lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” American eugenicists believed, as Galton did, that people could be bred, like livestock, for desirable traits. Those with undesirable traits, which included everything from alcoholism to criminal recidivism to poverty, could be sterilized.

Indiana passed the first law allowing eugenics-based sterilization in 1907. Thirty-one other states would follow. After constitutional challenges, many employed language and structure from the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law written by Harry Laughlin, one of the founders of the American Eugenics Society. (Laughlin’s law later became the model for Nazi Germany’s Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, and he would receive an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg for his support of “the science of racial cleansing.”)

Laughlin proposed a position of state eugenicist, whose function was “to protect the state against the procreation of persons socially inadequate from degenerate or defective physical, physiological or psychological inheritance.” He defined a socially inadequate person as one who, in comparison with “normal” persons, fails to maintain himself as a useful member of the state, and he set out the socially inadequate classes: the feeble-minded, the insane, the criminalistic, the epileptic, the inebriate, the diseased, the blind, the deaf, the deformed, the crippled, and the dependent (including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, the homeless, tramps and paupers”). Twenty years later, Virginia’s Sterilization Act, patterned after Laughlin’s, was found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Buck v. Bell case, in which Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, about the family of 19-year-old Carrie Buck, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

North Carolina’s first sterilization law was recorded in 1919, but sterilizations did not begin until 1929, after the passage of Buck v. Bell, when one vasectomy, one castration, and one ovariectomy were performed (the state’s law was unusual in allowing castrations for “therapeutic treatment”). In 1933, the law was declared unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court on the basis of a deficient appeals process, and a second law was passed that year, ostensibly providing for due process for the individuals recommended for surgery. Sterilizations could be petitioned by the superintendent of public welfare, the heads of prisons or other institutions housing potential patients, or their next of kin or legal guardians. Despite the ability of individuals to appeal such recommendations, the statute was broad, allowing the Eugenics Board to overrule objections and authorize sterilizations in the best interest of the individual, for the public good, or if the individual was suspected to produce children with “a tendency to serious physical, mental or nervous disease or deficiency.”

By July 1935, the state had sterilized 223 men and women, most of them residents of state-run institutions. Though it would take another decade for public opinion to begin turning away from eugenics, “Eugenical Sterilization in North Carolina,” a report published by the state that year, envisioned a public that still needed convincing. The report argued, among other things, that sterilization was protection that benefitted both society and the sterilized individual:

There is no discovery vitally affecting the life, happiness and well being of the human race in the last quarter of a century about which intelligent people know so little, as modern sterilization. The operation is simple, it removes no organ or tissue of the body. It has no effect on the patient except to prevent parenthood. Under conservative laws, sanely and diplomatically administered, as they have been in California, these discoveries developed by the medical profession now offer to these classes the greatest relief possible and the greatest protection to the defenseless child of the future. It offers one, humane, practical protection against threatened race degeneracy.

Adapted from “For the Public Good” by Belle Boggs. Copyright 2013 The New New South. All rights reserved.


Belle Boggs is the author of the story collection “Mattaponi Queen,” which won the Bakeless Prize and the Library of Virginia Award.


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