After being raped by her neighbor when she was just 13, Elaine Riddick was forced to undergo another kind of trauma: She was forcibly sterilized by the state of North Carolina after giving birth. 

The year was 1967, and back then, the practice of sterilizing women the state found “undesirable” was commonplace.  Riddick, like thousands of others, was labeled “feebleminded” and “promiscuous,” and the state decided she shouldn’t be allowed to have more children.

This horrific practice, beginning in the 1920s, was based on the premise of eugenics, which is a scientific theory that believes that poverty, promiscuity, and negative behaviors like alcoholism are inherited traits. Because of this, 31 states adopted a forced sterilization program during the early 20th Century, and by 1960s, tens of thousands of Americans were involuntarily sterilized.

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North Carolina’s eugenics program lasted from 1929 to 1974 (it was disbanded in 1977), and was initially adopted as a way to control welfare spending on poor Whites. However, as the program progressed, Black women became targets. During North Carolina’s eugenics program, 7,600 people were forcibly sterilized, 85 percent of them female and 40 percent of them non-white.

Many, like Riddick, didn’t know they were sterilized until they wanted to have more children later in life.

NBC’s Rock Center reports:

It wouldn’t be until Riddick was 19, married and wanting more children, that she’d learn she was incapable of having any more babies. A doctor in New York where she was living at the time told her that she’d been sterilized. 

“Butchered.  The doctor used that word…  I didn’t understand what she meant when she said I had been butchered,” Riddick said.

For the past eight years, North Carolina has been trying to right its horrible wrongs. Lawmakers have been working to compensate victims of the state’s eugenics program, but so far, only 48 victims have been matched to their records.

This summer, the state held hearings trying to encourage more victims to come forward. Bolstered by the efforts of state politicians like State Representative Larry Womble, the victims of North Carolina’s horrible sterilization are finally speaking out.

Despite the daunting task of finding and compensating all 7,600 victims, as Representative Womble pointed out, if the government is “powerful enough to perpetrate this on this society, they ought to be responsible, step up to the plate and compensate.”

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