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Eugenics Panel Weighs Options for Legislation in 2009 Session

by Laura GraffWinston-Salen Journal
October 24th, 2008

Elaine Riddick spoke yesterday before a legislative panel considering ways to compensate victims of the state eugenics program.

Elaine Riddick has told the story of her childhood dozens of times before, but that didn't stop her voice from shaking and her shoulders from trembling when she told it again to a group of state legislators yesterday.

Riddick was born to an abusive father and a mother who ultimately was sent to prison. She was raped at 13 and left pregnant by her attacker. And when she delivered the baby, the state took away her ability to deliver any more.

A five-person board ordered her to be sterilized in 1968 as part of a state eugenics program designed to stop certain groups of people from having children. She was 14 years old.

As a result, Riddick said yesterday, she spent the past 40 years fighting depression, struggling to maintain romantic relationships and questioning what exactly it means to be a woman.

"I felt like I was a 'he,'" she said from behind a podium in a soft but matter-of-fact voice. "Because I was barren."

She was not the only one. Between 1929 and 1978, more than 7,600 people were sterilized through the North Carolina eugenics program. Some were blind or mentally retarded. Some, like Riddick, were just poor and black.

Many of those people have died, but a committee of state legislators is trying to figure out how to make amends to those who are still living. They are considering several options, including health care, money for education or cash payments, said state Rep. Larry Womble, a Democrat from Winston-Salem.

Womble is a co-chairman of the House Select Committee on Compensation for Victims of the Eugenics Sterilization Program, which was formed after the sterilization program was exposed by the Winston-Salem Journal in 2002.

The committee is supposed to come up with a bill about reparations by the end of this year, so the General Assembly can consider reparations during the next legislative session in January.

The committee plans to discuss possible reparations next month.

Riddick said she has had physical and mental-health problems for years as a result of the state-imposed surgery. She was 19 when she found out she had been sterilized, she said, and her then husband berated her for being unable to have children.

"He called me a waste," she said.

The two other survivors who spoke yesterday, Willis Lynch and Mary English, described similar experiences.

English said she had three children by her first husband, then started having health problems. She was sterilized when she was 22 by a doctor who led her to believe that the surgery would be reversible if she ever wanted to have children again. When she got engaged four years later, she went back to the same doctor.

"He laughed," English said. "He said, 'You're not having any more children. You're sterile.'"

English said she had wanted a big family -- five children, lots of grandkids -- but those dreams disappeared.

"Because of this surgery, I'm not who I'm supposed to be," she said. "And I'm surely not who I wanted to be."

English said she still had health problems from the sterilization surgery and said she hopes that the legislature will provide survivors with extensive lifelong health care.

Riddick and Lynch said they want money.

Lynch said he was 13 or 14 when he was sterilized. He is 75 now. "I'm getting old," he told the committee. "And I hope you pay up before something happens."



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