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Commentary: North Carolina must make eugenics wrong right

North Carolina has determined that doing the right thing is too inconvenient and too expensive.

For some time now, the state has been on a seemingly noble quest to right old wrongs.

It dutifully went about identifying still-living victims of the state’s forced sterilization program, which lasted from 1929 until 1974.

The state was becoming a trailblazer.

This is how the Winston-Salem Journal described the program:

“They were wives and daughters. Sisters. Unwed mothers. Children. Even a 10-year-old boy. Some were blind or mentally retarded. Toward the end they were mostly black and poor. North Carolina sterilized them all, more than 7,600 people,” the paper reported. “For more than 40 years North Carolina ran one of the nation’s largest and most aggressive sterilization programs. It expanded after World War II, even as most other states pulled back in light of the horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

“Contrary to common belief, many of the thousands marked for sterilization were ordinary citizens, many of them young women guilty of nothing worse than engaging in premarital sex,” the paper wrote. “The state program was run by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, a panel of five bureaucrats who usually decided cases in a few minutes. It was inspired by the eugenics movement, which made exaggerated claims that mental illness, genetic defects and social ills could be eliminated by sterilization. The system granted excessive power to welfare workers, browbeat women into being sterilized and had ineffective safeguards.”

The state hurt whites, blacks and Native Americans. Virginia Brooks, an American Indian, was 14 when she was sterilized during a procedure officials told her was designed to remove her appendix, according to one report.

The stories are horrific. That’s why the efforts over the past few years by North Carolina officials to identify victims, apologize and make amends seemed heroic.

North Carolina, which ran the nation’s most aggressive eugenics program, would be the first of 32 states to take tangible steps to make things right.

It had an $11 million provision in its budget to compensate some of the estimated 150 living victims who have been identified.

The individual payouts would have been modest – up to $50,000 each – but the symbolism of a southern state leading the nation on such an issue would have been enormously powerful.

Gov. Bev Perdue was in favor of the plan.

The House passed it.

But the Senate scrapped it, with some using a tight budget as an excuse, which is laughable given that the state’s budget is more than $20 billion. Legislators could squeeze out $11 million.

Others such as N.C. Senator Chris Carney, a Republican, told media in the state:

“If we do something like this, you open up the door to other things the state did in its history. And some, I’m sure you’d agree, are worse than this.”

He was alluding to the state’s history of slavery and treatment of Native Americans.

In other words, the state shouldn’t do what’s right for living victims today because it might shine a bad light on what the state did to people who have been dead for several decades, a couple centuries even.

And just like that, a noble effort turned cynical.

It’s akin to a rapist apologizing to the woman he raped after the statute of limitations had run by promising to fix her roof, then walking away claiming the job was tougher than he realized, leaving the hole in the roof and a few fresh scabs on her soul.

Instead of the praise North Carolina should have been receiving for doing the hard thing even when it didn’t have to, it is receiving criticism the Senate’s vote makes clear it deserves.

The state would have been better off it had simply not begun the process and pretended that neither the program nor the victims ever existed.

Gov. Perdue vetoed the budget Friday and said she wants to see the compensation funding restored.

Legislators “ignored the bipartisan attempt to compensate verified living victims of the state’s forced sterilization program that happened just a generation ago” even while providing $336 million in tax breaks “to lawyers, lobbyists, and other wealthy individuals,” she said in a statement.

It provides yet another chance for the state to make a wrong right – and to wipe the shame off its face.