Questions, Answers About History Of Eugenics In US
Q: WHAT HAPPENED IN NORTH CAROLINA?
A: Under the state’s eugenics program, which began in 1929, more than 7,600 people underwent sterilizations. Some procedures were forced to weed out the “feebleminded” while others were a voluntary form of birth control. Up to 1,800 people who were sterilized in North Carolina may be alive. The state has verified 146 living victims.
Unlike most states, the North Carolina program expanded after World War II, and shifted toward targeting poor black women.
Q: WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?
A: Some state legislators, including the House speaker, supported paying surviving victims $50,000 each, but lawmakers did not include any funding in the state budget.
North Carolina is the first state to seriously propose compensating victims. About 65,000 Americans in more than 30 states were sterilized between 1907 and the mid-1970s.
Details of the North Carolina program became widely known after historian Johanna Schoen obtained once-confidential documents and provided them to the Winston-Salem Journal, which published a series of articles in 2002 profiling victims. Then-Gov. Mike Easley apologized, but the compensation proposal didn’t gain widespread support until 2011.
Q: WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
A: Supporters of eugenics believed that “defective” humans could be weeded out of the population. Scientists discredited the assumption by the 1930s, and most states ceased their programs.
The North Carolina program, however, expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, partly because out-of-state doctors, professors and other eugenics supporters were seeking a testing ground for a new national campaign they hoped would sterilize millions of Americans. Specifically, a Princeton, N.J.-based group known as Birthright formed in the mid-1940s.
The group sought states with low numbers of Catholics, according to documents in the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. The Catholic church historically opposed eugenics and any artificial means of birth control.
One of the leading promoters of the North Carolina eugenics program was Dr. Clarence Gamble, a Boston doctor and heir to the Proctor & Gamble fortune. He helped form Birthright and was the driving force behind the national campaign.
Gamble convinced his brother Cecil Gamble to help, and in December 1944, the Gamble Family Trust made a $10,000 donation to Birthright, which would be the equivalent to about $125,000 today.
Clarence Gamble didn’t have a role in Proctor & Gamble, and while Cecil Gamble was on the board, the company said last year the donation was personal and in no way reflected the firm’s opinion.
Birthright later changed its name to the Human Betterment Association. They had a national office in New York and loosely-affiliated chapters in North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Arkansas and Texas. Some of the chapters were short-lived, but the one in North Carolina operated for almost 30 years.
Q: HOW WAS THE EUGENICS CAMPAIGN PROMOTED?
A: Gamble hired a New York City advertising firm to help sell the campaign. Leading journalists, along with some doctors and professors, voiced support, too.
Q: WHAT DID GAMBLE AND THE EUGENICS SUPPORTERS BELIEVE?
A: Gamble and his colleagues launched the expanded eugenics campaign with the intention it would cut across all social and racial categories. A eugenics document written in 1945 said: “It is designed to check the reproduction of defectives wherever they may be found, in institutions or at large, in the richest family or the poorest family, without regard to color, race, or religion.”
Q: WAS NORTH CAROLINA ALONE?
A: California led the nation in eugenic sterilization, but most of that took place before World War II. North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia expanded their programs after the war. Sterilizations continued in other states outside of formal programs.
In the 1950s, politicians and judges around the country began promoting involuntarily sterilization as a solution to growing welfare rolls. In 1956, a Virginia legislator suggested that any woman with more than one illegitimate child should prove why she shouldn’t be sterilized. Mississippi legislators began proposing sterilization of unwed mothers in 1958, and several other states discussed similar laws. Across the nation, eugenic sterilization shifted from targeting poor whites, immigrants and the “feebleminded” in institutions to overwhelmingly targeting minorities.
In 1969, the federal government began to fund sterilization operations under Medicaid. Four years later, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued.
A ruling by District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell a year later put numbers to the problem. “Over the last few years, and estimated 100,000 to 150,000 low-income persons have been sterilized annually under federally funded programs,” Gesell wrote, adding that about 2,000 to 3,000 per year were under the age of 21, and about 300 under the age of 18.
The judge said many of the victims were threatened with a loss of welfare benefits unless they agreed to the sterilization.
Note: Begos has researched and written about the country’s eugenics efforts for the past 10 year and is currently writing a book about the post-World War II eugenics movement.
Begos also wrote the lead story for the 2002 Winston-Salem Journal series on eugenics.
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