The story of Henrietta Lacks is all too real for a group of black women in North Carolina who have come forward to speak about being involuntarily sterilized in the state over the course of 50 years. While the circumstances of the cases are different—Lacks’ cells were taken from her without her knowledge, while the women in North Carolina were stripped of their reproductive rights—all women were victims of science using black women’s bodies for undisclosed and exploitative purposes.
The group of black women in North Carolina who were victims of forced sterilization were tragically impacted by the eugenics movement, a “scientific” approach to population control that has thankfully since been discredited. The application of eugenics theory sought to eliminate the societal ills of poverty, promiscuity, and alcoholism that were thought to be inherited by sterilizing those with such traits to improve society’s gene pool.
The movement grew in popularity during the 1920s, but was still quite active in North Carolina until 1974. One of the victims who has come forward, Elaine Riddick, was just 13 years old when she became pregnant after a neighbor raped her. After giving birth, the state ordered that she be sterilized and doctors cut and tied off her fallopian tubes, preventing her from having any more children. Even though she was just a child, they deemed her mentally feeble and made a permanent change to her body that altered her entire life. To make matters worse, Riddick wasn’t even aware of what was done to her. It wasn’t until she was 19 and married that she found out she was incapable of having children.
Sadly, as the television news program Rock Center points out, North Carolina was one of 31 states to have a government run eugenics program and by the 1960s, tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized as a result of these programs. What began as a way to control welfare spending on poor white women and men, eventually shifted to targeting more women and more blacks than whites. And Planned Parenthood was famously started as part of this movement, which opened one of its first offices in Harlem. (Planned Parenthood has since abandoned this motivating philosophy.)
In 2002, the state of North Carolina issued an apology to victims of eugenics -related crimes, and a task force was created in 2003 to determine appropriate compensation for the individuals harmed. Figure estimates range from $20,000 to $50,000 each being promised to the approximately 2,000 victims who are still alive — yet eight years later, none of these women has received a dime.
Regardless, can you ever truly put a price on the emotional and physical scars these women have endured? Not being able to conceive, being physically mutilated and “butchered” — the term Elaine Riddick said the doctor used to describe what happened to her when she discovered her mutilation years later.
“I was raped by a perpetrator [who was never charged] and then I was raped by the state of North Carolina,” she said. “They took something from me both times.”
Riddick went on to painfully relate, “The state of North Carolina, they took something so dearly from me, something that was God given.”
Hearing this woman’s story and knowing how many others experienced the same wrong truly makes me think twice about Herman Cain’s charge of “planned genocide” perpetrated by Planned Parenthood. Yes, the organization has changed its stripes. But, to think that such a procedure as what happened to Riddick and thousands of others was commonplace merely 35 years ago is truly disturbing.
It makes you question just how far we have come over the years as a society. It also speaks to how far the medical community still has to go in terms of earning black women’s trust.
Were you aware of the involuntary sterilization that went on in North Carolina and other states from the 1920s to the early 1970s? Can these women ever be properly compensated for what was done to them?
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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