ATLANTA — The task force assigned the difficult task of deciding how much to compensate the victims of a North Carolina sterilization program, which was intended to reduce welfare costs and cleanse the gene pool of undesirable characteristics, settled on a number on Tuesday.
Each living person sterilized as part of the state’s formal eugenics program, which lasted from 1929 to 1974, should receive $50,000, the task force said.
Certainly, many of the nearly three dozen other states that once had eugenics programs sterilized more people. In California, about 20,000 people were sterilized by the state. But the program in North Carolina, which may have included as many as 7,600 people, lasted the longest and was one of the most aggressive.
Now, North Carolina is the first to set a dollar amount for the victims.
“I think that number sounds fantastic,” said Rita Thompson Swords, 72, who grew up in a poor family of 16 children. She was sterilized at 21 during a Caesarean section to deliver her second child. “That is surely going to help a lot,” she said by telephone from her home just outside Charlotte. “Lord, I wouldn’t know how to act if I get to buy me some new clothes.”
Not every victim was pleased. Elaine Riddick, 58, who now lives in Atlanta, was sterilized after a rape left her pregnant at 13. She had wanted $1 million. “They took away something from me that was so valuable that I can never get back,” she said.
But Dr. Laura Gerald, the head of the task force, said the money sent a message that North Carolinians “do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights.”
The road from the task force recommendations to the payout remains long. The report will next go to Gov. Bev Perdue on Feb. 1, and she will then add her recommendations and send it to lawmakers when she submits her budget to the Legislature, which comes into session in May.
So far, there is bipartisan support for compensating victims. But persuading lawmakers to pay out what could be $100 million will be a challenge. North Carolina is predicting a $2 billion budget shortfall for its fiscal year in 2013, which begins in July.
The panel recommended that the money go only to living victims, including those who may die before lawmakers approve any compensation. Of the people who were sterilized — disproportionately minorities and many poor, uneducated and mentally handicapped — only 1,500 to 2,000 victims are expected to be living.
So far, the state has verified only 72 victims, but more are expected to come forward now that money is being offered, said Jill Lucas, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Administration.
In addition to compensation, the task force recommends continued financing for the Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which is helping to locate victims. The task force also suggests that people be given up to three years to come forward, and that any money they receive not affect their eligibility for government programs based on income.
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