At the recent opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., former President George W. Bush reflected on the social advancement America has made, remarking that, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws, and corrects them.”
President Bush could not be more correct. No nation is perfect, but America is great in part because we do acknowledge our sins of the past and work hard to never repeat them. This has allowed America to make enormous progress since its founding, including ending the horrors of slavery and the bigoted injustices of racial segregation.
However, there is one particular sin from our past that has flown under the public’s radar for far too long. It is the dark, shameful period from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, during which more than 60,000 Americans in 33 states were forcibly sterilized as part of state-run eugenics programs.
States created eugenics boards to sterilize citizens they deemed “unfit” or too “feebleminded” to reproduce, in many cases targeting specific groups like unmarried women, African Americans and children from poor families. Victims were often sterilized without their direct consent or knowledge.
The consent process itself was often a travesty, with over-zealous eugenics boards dismissing the objections of the victims’ parents and other relatives. There were also countless stories of coercion and intimidation: single mothers receiving threats they would never see their children again unless they signed the consent forms to sterilize them.
Knowing about the existence of state-run eugenics programs, we must make a good faith effort to address the wrongs committed in the past. We will never take back the agony and trauma the victims have lived with all their lives.
However, we can still work to provide a modicum of justice by compensating the victims who were subject to such heinous acts of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their own government.
North Carolina has been at the forefront of the effort to shine a light on eugenics programs and make amends for the gross misdeeds of the past. Advocates in the state waged a decades-long fight to compensate victims, led by former state Rep. Larry Womble. They ran into political opposition from the beginning, first blocked by a Democratic governor and legislature. When I became House Speaker in 2011, I joined Rep. Womble’s fight to compensate the victims, only to run into resistance again, this time from some of my fellow Republicans.
Getting the legislation passed required us to convince our colleagues to cast aside fiscal and political concerns to do what was morally right. In 2013, we worked out a hard-fought compromise that made North Carolina the first state in the nation to create a compensation fund for the living victims of its state-run eugenics program.
Since 2014, more than 200 North Carolina victims have been awarded compensation payments totaling approximately $35,000 each.
Last year, Virginia followed suit, becoming the second state to create a eugenics compensation program, and will soon be awarding $25,000 to each surviving victim.
Unfortunately, the legislation at the state-level could only do so much. It turns out that because the federal government counted the compensation as “income,” it jeopardized the victims’ eligibility for federal safety net benefits like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, Supplemental Security Income, and others. This meant that the victims—many of whom already have only the modest of means—could have had their federal benefits reduced, or eliminated altogether.
As a U.S. Senator, I was determined to stop this unintended consequence, and I introduced The Treatment of Certain Payments in Eugenics Compensation Act along with Senator Tom Carper and original co-sponsors Senators Richard Burr, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine. This bipartisan legislation will protect living eugenics victims receiving compensation payments by excluding those payments from being considered in the determination of federal benefits.
In a rare display of bipartisan unity, both the Senate and the House unanimously passed the legislation, and President Obama recently signed the legislation into law.
It is my hope that in addition to assisting living eugenics victims, this law will also increase the public’s awareness of the horrors and injustices of state-run sterilization programs.
There are still 31 states that have yet to create their own compensation funds for victims, and I encourage the governors and legislatures of these states to follow the lead of North Carolina and Virginia before it is too late for the victims, many of whom are now in their 80s and 90s. We also cannot forget the many victims of local and county-run eugenics programs, and it is time for county governments in North Carolina and across the nation to do the right thing and create funds for the living survivors.
Compensating the victims of government-run eugenics programs will help confirm President Bush’s assertion that America is a great nation willing to face the flaws from its past and present, matched with a willingness to correct them.