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Originally published Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 12:35 PM

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Perdue wants Legislature to create foundation that would compensate NC eugenics victims

The top legislative advocate for a proposal to remunerate thousands who were forcibly sterilized last century under a state program said Wednesday he may never live long enough to see all the victims compensated but backs the governor's plan for getting started.

Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. —

The top legislative advocate for a proposal to remunerate thousands who were forcibly sterilized last century under a state program said Wednesday he may never live long enough to see all the victims compensated but backs the governor's plan for getting started.

Gov. Beverly Perdue's two-year state budget released Tuesday proposed that the Legislature put $250,000 in a proposed Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which would identify and develop a plan to compensate victims of the so-called eugenics program.

About 7,600 people were sterilized because they were mentally handicapped or considered genetically inferior under a North Carolina program that ran between 1929 and 1974.

A state commission recommended financial compensation in 2003. A state House panel last year recommended giving each victim $20,000. Perdue promised during her campaign last year she would compensate victims.

"Any amount of money shows a commitment that she is living up to her campaign promise. I'm hoping one day we can offer these people actual compensation," said Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth.

Forsyth is the chief sponsor of legislation seeking to spend $18.5 million to compensate sterilization victims. Though he is vice-chairman of the House budget-writing committee, he admitted his proposed amount won't be funded while North Carolina faces a recession driving rising unemployment and state budget cuts.

"I don't know that I'll live long enough to see the day that these people will actually see the money in their hands," said Womble, 67. "It's been like a snail, but it's coming. Ever so slowly, we're moving."

Perdue's proposal for a small start toward compensating victims surprised the professor whose research into North Carolina's eugenics program led to government action.

North Carolina is the only one of the more than two dozen states that ran eugenics programs to propose compensation, said Johanna Schoen, a history professor at the University of Iowa. Her doctoral thesis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researched the state's forced sterilizations.

"Just the fact that they're proposing this legislation is outstanding," Schoen said. "I am in awe. That's amazing."

Outside the U.S., Sweden and the Canadian province of Alberta compensated victims of similar sterilization programs, she said. The governors of Virginia, Oregon, South Carolina, and North Carolina have issued apologies for forced sterilizations.

North Carolina was relatively late to a policy urged by social reformers beginning early in the 20th century to use sterilization as a solution for mental retardation and mental illness. North Carolina in 1929 created a statewide Eugenics Board that reviewed petitions for sterilizations. But while many states stopped their programs after World War II, recognizing similarities to ideas of racial purity in Nazi Germany, North Carolina conducted about 80 percent of its forced sterilizations after 1945. The scope of the state's program trailed only California and Virginia.

"Some of those operations were not the most professional, best done. There are still people suffering the psychological effects from them," Womble said. "They could forcibly come and take your little daughter out and bring her back sterilized. .. You don't do human beings like that. You spay and neuter dogs and cats."

A North Carolina bill that would expand research and teaching about the eugenics program is winding through House committees. The bill directs public schools to teach students about the eugenics program, orders the placement of a historical marker, urges university researchers to collect the stories of survivors, and seeks to digitize records.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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