US eugenics victim: ‘I didn’t know what they were doing to me’

A decades-long US program of forced sterilization left tens of thousands of women unable to have children. As plans for compensation remain feeble, RT talks to one of the victims about the horrors of eugenics she was exposed to.

RT’s Marina Portnaya traveled to North Carolina, where the silent eugenics program was the most aggressive and prolonged.

Operating from 1933 to 1977, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina quietly sterilized an estimated 7,600 people, targeting minorities and poor young women due to their low income and education.

In North Carolina, an IQ of 70 or lower would mean sterilization was suitable. It was also the only state that gave the freedom to social workers to determine who would be sterilized.

Eugenics is a pseudo-science aimed at improving the so-called 'quality' of the population by forcibly preventing reproduction by people thought, by some, to be inferior.

America’s silent eugenics program, conceived in 1920s and practiced across 32 states, targeted mostly young minorities deemed too poor, mentally disabled or otherwise ‘unfit’ to raise children.

84-year-old Virginia Brooks became one of the eugenics victims when she was taken away at 14.

“I said why do I got to go to the hospital, I’m not sick”, Brooks told RT.

Virginia was with two other girls when a social worker picked her up. “She said we gotta take your appendix out. So they took me down there and they did surgery. I didn’t know what they were doing to me.”

“She [the social worker] came and my chart was on the foot on my bed. She said, you’ll never have no children. And that’s when I found out what they did to me”, Brooks added.

Apartment building that served as center for forced sterilization in North Carolina.
Apartment building that served as center for forced sterilization in North Carolina.

Portnaya visited the horrid place where state officials took Virginia Brooks and dozens of other young girls to undergo mandatory sterilization decades ago. Today it is an apartment building complex where families go about their everyday lives.

“I would have loved to have a baby. I would have liked to know what it would’ve been like to have a baby. I look at other people, why couldn’t I have been like that?” Virginia said.

Brooks went on to adopt a little girl and marry Howard, her husband of forty two years. Between them they have four grandchildren, five great grandchildren and the legacy of suffering that goes with mandatory sterilization which has never quite gone away.

“I still feel sorry for her for the way she was treated”, Virginia’s husband Howard said.

“Somebody should be held accountable. If the state had anything to do with it, the state should be sued for everything they got.”

One of the most infamous uses of Eugenics was the racial purity program in Nazi Germany. The practice was introduced in the US many years before being adopted by the Nazi regime, however, serving as a model for inspiration later down the line.

U.S. eugenics advocacy poster from the Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition, 1926. (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org)
U.S. eugenics advocacy poster from the Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition, 1926. (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org)

Compensation debacle

To this day, none of the victims in the US have been compensated for their life-long suffering.

This year, North Carolina is on track to become the first state to compensate living victims, like Brooks, with a pay out of up to US $50,000. But the plan’s future remains uncertain.

In June, North Carolina’s state senate rejected proposals to allocate funding for the compensation program.

“North Carolina was the third most populous state in this nation to sterilize its victims”, North Carolina State Representative Larry Womble stated. “This state and this country can do better than this. We are ashamed of what has happened.”

Opponents cited budgetary restraints and concerns of setting an unfair precedent for other groups that claim to have been victimized as the main reasons for their vote. And some argue that paying victims for what was a legal program could lead to subsequent payouts tied to America’s other historic atrocities such as slavery.

The defeat weighs heaviest on the surviving victims, but they are not giving up.

“This program was always hiding in plain sight," editor of Winston-Salem Journal John Railey told NPR. "And now I'm the editorial page editor of my paper, pushing for compensation of these folks that guys who sat in my chair back in the day pushed to have sterilized, for all intents and purposes."

2,000 victims are still alive today, but only about 130 of them came forward to receive possible compensation.

A set of photographs depicting anthropometry – the measurement of humans.Exhibit photograph scanned from: Harry H. Laughlin, The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, in connection with the Second International Congress of Eugenics in the American Museum of Natural History, New York (Baltimore: William & Wilkins Co., 1923). (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org)
A set of photographs depicting anthropometry – the measurement of humans.Exhibit photograph scanned from: Harry H. Laughlin, The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, in connection with the Second International Congress of Eugenics in the American Museum of Natural History, New York (Baltimore: William & Wilkins Co., 1923). (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org)