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North Carolina hearing explores history of forced sterilization

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Sterilization victims speak out
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dozens of victims share stories of North Carolina's former sterilization program
  • Between 1933-1973, more than 7,600 citizens were coerced or chose to undergo sterilization
  • Governor's task force to recommend appropriate compensation for survivors

(CNN) -- Deborah Chesson spoke through tears Wednesday as she addressed a North Carolina task force on behalf of her mother.

"I'm writing you with hopes that you will understand the pain, hurt and emptiness I still feel inside," she read.

"A social worker convinced my mom to sign for me to undergo an operation that would prevent me from getting pregnant, not knowing all the while that I was being set up to be sterilized like I was some kind of animal."

Dozens of North Carolina citizens spoke at the public hearing against the state's five-decade forced sterilization program. The listening session, held by the governor's task force, gave victims the opportunity to share their experiences with a state task force charged with recommending compensation for victims and their families.

Eugenics is the process of selectively breeding humans and animals to rid the population of "unfit" characteristics. In 1933, North Carolina passed a revised eugenics law. The law established the North Carolina Eugenics Board, which largely targeted low-income females for sterilization procedures.

Those speaking at the hearing said social workers pressured men and women to undergo sterilization and in some cases lied and said the procedures were reversible.

After World War II, most states abolished their eugenics programs when it became clear that Nazis used similar practices to further their ideals of racial purity. But the number of sterilizations in North Carolina peaked between 1950-1960, according to state records. Though the eugenics board was abolished in 1977, the law remained a general statute until 2003.

Roughly 3,000 of the 7,600 citizens who were sterilized are still alive. Friends and family members of those sterilized addressed the task force on behalf of their loved ones who could not be present.

In March, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue established the Governor's Eugenics Compensation Task Force to research and provide recommendations for possible compensation for victims. The task force has an August 1 deadline to submit a proposal to the governor.

Forced sterilization victims open up
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State representatives considered offering $50,000 in compensation to victims, but legislators deemed the amount too high. Now they are considering whether to offer $20,000 or to pay for medical services.

At least seven other states have issued formal apologies for similar eugenics programs. So far, only North Carolina has considered establishing a program to compensate individual victims.

"What do you think I'm worth?" one victim asked. "It doesn't matter what you think I'm worth. It's what I think I'm worth."

Perdue addressed the audience after the testimonies were heard. She called the state's sterilization program "reprehensible" and thanked victims and their families for having the courage to share their stories with the task force.

"I can't believe that this has ever happened in North Carolina. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being here," Perdue said. "This is not a good day for us. It's not a happy day for North Carolina ... and it has to be hard for you to sit in this room."

Chesson said the intervening years have turned victims into survivors who have endured despite the efforts of the eugenics board. She questioned how much longer the victims would have to wait for justice.

"It's easy to make decisions when you don't have faces of the people who have been victimized," she said.

"The eugenics board was a committee, a board. ... I'm not saying that you're just like them, but for me, until I see action, I'm still waiting."

CNN affiliate WRAL contributed to this report.

 
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