Eugenics: Remembering History and the Living Victims

Posted by Pete Shanks March 12, 2010
Biopolitical Times

The legacy of 20th-century eugenics is still with us, and two complementary new initiatives have just been announced to help us confront it.

North Carolina, which has been slowly addressing the moral obligation to compensate victims of involuntary sterilization, has appointed an advocate for them: Charmaine Fuller Cooper is the new executive director of the N.C. Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation, which has start-up funding of $250,000. "I aim to give them a voice," she wrote, "so nothing like this ever happens in state government again." Her official charge is "to develop a plan to provide justice and compensate victims of the so-called eugenics program, which forcibly sterilized more than 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974."

In Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has awarded a million-dollar grant for "Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada" [pdf]. A team of 24 researchers from 14 institutions, plus 12 other partner institutions, will explore the history of Alberta's eugenics laws, which operated from 1929 to 1972. Institutions involved range from local universities to the Edmonton Police and the Edmonton Public Library, as well as the Universities of Copenhagen and North Carolina, the Public School Boards' Association of Alberta, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and many more.

They intend to accumulate documents and place them in the public domain, along with first-hand testimony from sterilization survivors. The lead investigator, University of Alberta professor Robert Wilson, says they don't yet know what they will discover:

"A number of us think it's really timely to look at these things now we've got an appropriate amount of distance. But it's important that this work be done in the next five or 10 years because the people who we could use as major sources and the people who want to tell their own stories [...] are getting old."

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, said George Santayana. The surviving victims deserve help, and we all need to remember what happened.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: