Black Victims of Involuntary Sterilization Speak Out

November 8, 2011  |  

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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  • Seriously

    Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had something to do with eugenics…look it up

  • Pretty

    Please tell me her rapist’s baby was killed off or at least put up for adoption?

  • devildog808

    I’m speechless and heartbroken for the victims of this tragedy! This is the first time I’ve heard of the NC forced sterilization “population control” experiment. I must say that I am not surprised. I’m always nerve when the medical community begins to push a new “disorder” followed by a chemical cure on folks especially in the back community! Remember “restless leg syndrome”? 

    I am also troubled by the Gradicle (sp?) so-called anti-cancer drug given to little girls in the black community. It is said to prevent 4 of the major cancer cells from developing, the problem is that 104 cells can actaully cause cancer. What about the remaining 100? They have also been secretly “encouraging low-income” families i.e. black & latino women to have their young daughters put on a trial injection birth control. Black women know the facts before you allow anyone to give you or your daughters anything. Don’t let this experiment happen again! A determind ppl never gives up that easily. *wink and nod*

  • Another and very very important reason as to why as an African woman I will only marry another black African/African American man and will only have babies that are black. The world wants people of a darker shade to no longer exist. Not the way I see fit. Sorry folks. 

  • The government did it here and other places too. There are a lot of things the U.S government did that has been swept under the table, like testing rugs on minorities and in other countries, spreading diseases to watch how they progress in different races, or even exposing people to radioactive material and not explaining the risks because they were ‘expendable’ or they wanted to see what would happen. There was no way to accuse the government in the past, there was certainly no youtube or facebook to make your voice heard. If the government was prosecuted for everything they did, there would be no more government.

    • devildog808

      Absolutely! Look at all of the testing that this government and US corporations have been doing in rural China, Africa, India and South America. They tested on American’s for years (and still do) but once cases such as this and “bad blood” experiement surfaced, they simply moved their major testing sites off-shore!

  • Sugar/Spice

    Wow…..just wow.  I am sitting hear on the verge of tears because I can’t fathom what these woman went through nor did I know that they were involuntarily sterilizing women like that.