By Debra Goldschmidt, CNN
(CNN) – Living people who were forcibly sterilized as part of a decades-long eugenics program in North Carolina should receive a one-time payment of $50,000, a state task force recommended on Tuesday.
North Carolina sterilized an estimated 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974, many of them against their will. The state apologized for the sterilizations in 2002, and Gov. Bev Perdue created the compensation task force last year. Many states once had eugenics programs, and seven have apologized, but North Carolina is the first to consider paying victims.
The five-member task force - including a doctor, lawyer, historian, retired judge and retired journalist – met for 10 months and has a February 1 deadline to send a report, including recommendations for compensation, to the governor.
The payments will need to be approved by North Carolina's legislature, and nobody is saying yet where money for victims would come from - some estimates put the number of living victims at 1,500. Task force spokeswoman Jill Lucas said Perdue will include the recommended payment in the budget she submits to the state legislature, which will take it up this spring. There is a three-year statute of limitations, so victims need to come forward soon.
The task force also recommends more aggressive outreach to identify victims, mental health services for living victims, the continuation and expansion of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which operates the task force, as well as the creation of permanent and traveling exhibits to educate the public about the state’s defunct eugenics program. The task force noted the need to ensure that the $50,000 payment won't result in victims losing eligibility for other benefits they might already be receiving.
Even deciding how to make up for the eugenics program is no easy task. Historians and experts on compensation say there are no comparable examples to model monetary reparations after. This is a far different situation than better-known reparations debates, such as slavery, for which no compensation has been awarded, or the Nazi Holocaust, which is tied to individual awards allotted after an extensive documentation process. The closest example, experts say, is the 1988 decision by the U.S. Senate to pay $20,000 to Japanese-Americans who were held in internment camps during World War II. Surviving victims were paid the flat fee for the suffering caused by displacement.
Steven Selden, a University of Maryland professor and author of the book “Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America,” said the national eugenics movement was about altering the gene pool and eliminating people who spoke, looked, or behaved differently. What set North Carolina apart was how recently it occurred: Most states stopped after World War II, but North Carolina continued sterilizing people into the 1970s.
Selden said $50,000 is a substantial amount that carries symbolic significance. But, he believes paying any amount can be part of an ethical slippery slope that allows a price to be assigned to something that's priceless. It’s a bad idea, he said, because paying victims can start to seem like an easy way out.
"The question is, do we diminish the importance of it (by paying victims)?” he said. “I think those demanding reparations should think about it. Giving a dollar amount could be of just value, but there are other things that should be considered as well."
He would like to know more about the educational exhibits the task force recommends and suggests the state put money toward a curriculum for teaching the history and biology of eugenics. North Carolina could be a bellwether for other states, especially those that had eugenics programs of their own. Education better ensures it won’t happen again, he said.
"By making it an education issue and putting money into schools, it takes it long past the people who were harmed,” Selden said. “It's a win and a lose for North Carolina. They can lose by saying ‘We're not going to pay anyone,’ but the win can be that they say ‘We are going to change how we educate about this issue and that will lead to a national conversation.’”
University of North Carolina School of Law Professor Alfred Brophy, author of the book “Reparations: Pro and Con,” said North Carolina's eugenics program is an extraordinary circumstance of life-altering harm to individuals, which strengthens the case for reparations.
Brophy, who calls himself an advocate of reparations, said he's pleasantly surprised by the task force recommendation for payment. However, it's important for the public to first know the “human dimensions” of forced sterilizations, he said. A legislative decision on the amount of money offered to victims shouldn’t be determined until more details about the forced sterilization cases are known, he said.
"Truth and reconciliation needs to come first," Brophy said.
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation created by Perdue continues to search for victims of the state’s eugenics program. Charmaine Fuller Cooper, the executive director of the foundation, said it receives about 200 calls per month from possible victims or their family members. They’ve confirmed that 72 of those who contacted them were victims and are working to verify more reports.
There are few public details about who - if any - were targeted for sterilization and how they were coerced into it. Nationally, many eugenics programs focused on criminals and mentally ill people, but in North Carolina, it extended to healthy women and children, many of them poor and uneducated. Mothers were pushed or tricked into signing release forms for their young daughters to undergo the sterilization operation under threat of losing state-provided aid or custody.
Their stories and circumstances have only begun to emerge recently, sometimes in emotional public hearings, sometimes in phone calls to the victims foundation.
Elaine Riddick was just 14 when she got pregnant after being raped. After giving birth to her only child 43 years ago, Riddick was sterilized. Her illiterate grandmother was bullied into signing the consent forms for the procedure.
Naomi Schenck was 16 when she got married, and was on her way to motherhood by 17. She went to the hospital after a miscarriage and left after a hysterectomy she didn't authorize. She never became a mother.
Men weren't spared, either. Charles Holt was 19 and living in an institution for boys when he was sterilized, and wasn’t aware of what it meant until after the vasectomy.
Fuller Cooper said monetary compensation could inspire more victims to come forward, but it could be years before the issue is settled. Many are waiting to find out if compensation will become a reality before stepping forward and disclosing part of their past they've shut out, she said.
Perdue issued a statement supporting the compensation proposal and said she looks forward to reviewing the full report from the task force. After doing so, she’ll make her final recommendations to state legislators, who will ultimately decide whether to pay people who were sterilized by the state.
Still, the compensation task force recommendations are a significant step forward, Fuller Cooper said, adding that every step is a step in the right direction. She said she'll be relieved when the legislature takes up the issue.
"We have completed one phase of bringing justice closer to the victims," she told CNN, “and we hope to build more support for the Task Force's efforts as we move toward the final phase.”