The aftermath of a state eugenics program


Elaine Riddick was 14 when she became pregnant by rape in North Carolina in 1968. A committee of five men called the Eugenics Board decided that, “Because of Elaine’s inability to control herself, and her promiscuity — there are community reports of her ‘running around’ and out late at night unchaperoned — the physician has advised sterilization. … This will at least prevent additional children from being born to this child who cannot care for herself, and can never function in any way as a parent.” A few hours after her son was born, a physician sterilized Ms. Riddick without her knowledge. (I am astonished to discover that there was still a Eugenics Board in my lifetime; I had thought that was all pre-WWII)

Now, more than 40 years later, another five-person board, the Governor’s Eugenic Compensation Task Force, has proposed giving $50,000 to each living victim of its eugenics program. Of the 7,600 people sterilized under the program between 1929 and 1974, some 2,000 are still alive. Ms. Riddick is incensed at the notion: “Fifty thousand dollars? Is that what they think my life is worth? How much are the kids I never had worth? How much?”

North Carolina was only one of more than 30 states that carried out eugenics programs that forcibly sterilized up to 65,000 people, but it had one of the more robust programs.  “The board’s declared goal was to purify the state’s population by weeding out the mentally ill, diseased, feebleminded and others deemed undesirable. . . In a 1950 pamphlet, the Human Betterment League of North Carolina said the board was protecting ‘the children of future generations and the community at large,’ adding that ‘you wouldn’t expect a moron to run a train or a feebleminded woman to teach school.'” The state carried out its program using deception if necessary, telling subjects that they were going in for appendectomies or that the operations were reversible.

Who knows which accepted, scientific practices of today will be the stuff of attempts at corrective action of tomorrow? Embryonic stem cell research? Commercial surrogacy? Paying young women to “donate” eggs? Human organ trafficking? Whatever it will be, as the story of Elaine Riddick demonstrates, money can never compensate someone for having their basic human dignity ignored and trampled upon.

(All quotes from the LA Times article link)

Sterilization Decision Illustrates the Importance of Intent

In a recent British court case the mother of a 21-year-old woman who was pregnant with her second child asked that doctors perform a sterilization procedure at the time of her planned C-section.  The woman has a mental disability and the court is being asked to determine if she is capable of making her own decision regarding sterilization. If it is determined that she is not, her mother is asking for permission for her doctors to sterilize her.  The mother says that this would be in her daughter’s best interest due to her inability to care for further children and the likelihood that she would be separated from those children.

This request raises the concern that sterilization of those who had a mental disability was what the eugenics movement of the early 20th century proposed.  That attempt to rid society of those who were not desired by preventing their birth showed disrespect for the intrinsic human worth of those with a disability.  However, there is a big difference between sterilizing someone in order to decrease the burden on society and doing so because it is in the best interest of the person with the disability.  The mother says she  desires her daughter to be sterilized for the daughter’s benefit.

The moral difference between the eugenics movement and this mother’s request is one of intent.  To sterilize a person who lacks capability to make her own decisions with the sole intent of limiting the number of potentially mentally disabled offspring in society is wrong.  To sterilize a person who lacks capability to make her own decisions with the intent of doing what is in her best interest may be right thing to do.  If the mother’s intent is not actually her daughter’s best interest, but her own, then it may not be right.

Even though the acts may be the same and the consequences may be the same, intent is the deciding factor in this moral decision.