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North Carolina: Sterilized by the State

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"I went to the doctor who did that to me and I asked him, 'Why?' Why had he done that to me? He didn't have to say nothing -- and he didn't. If he was going to give that sort of operation then he should have told me. I would love to have had children," recalled civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer wistfully.

It was 1961 and Hamer had undergone what she thought was a routine procedure but had actually been given a full hysterectomy, without her knowledge or consent. However, discussing the improbability of a poor, uneducated, black sharecropper launching a lawsuit she remarked, "At that time? Me? Getting a white lawyer against a white doctor? I would have been taking my hands and screwing tacks in my casket."

But times have changed. If she was still alive today one can only wonder what Hamer would have made of a recent announcement that North Carolina had sought to close a dark chapter in its history by awarding $10 million for victims of the state's villainous eugenics programme -- which ran between 1929 and 1974 and resulted in 7,600 men, women and children being surreptitiously sterilised.

Although Fannie Lou Hamer had had an involuntary hysterectomy, it was not happenstance, but, rather, such practices were widespread, particularly in the South: She always spoke of her "Mississippi appendectomy," wrote Harriet A. Washington in her explosive, award-winning book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. And, Hamer's predicament, and that of countless others', had parallels to revelations regarding the systematic sterilizations that had been conducted across the country, as a matter of policy.

Popularized by Francis Galton in the early 1900s, advocates of eugenics -- a term derived from the Greek word "eugenes" meaning "well-born" -- was an ideological mishmash of biological and social engineering to root out dysfunction: poverty, promiscuity, fecklessness, and alcoholism were supposedly inherited traits that, once eliminated, would improve the gene pool.

The first victims were, invariably, the most vulnerable members of society. Individuals deemed to be "feeble-minded," which included those with disabilities, birth defects, or suffering from epilepsy, were legitimate targets. This attitude and arrogance was exemplified by a notorious exponent of eugenics: Harry J. Haiselden. The Chicago surgeon 'starred' in a 1917 film, The Black Stork, that provided a chilling insight into his philosophy that it was "humane" to withhold medical care from a severely disabled baby to allow natural selection, i.e., that the baby should be left to die.

If eugenics sounded as though it had a depressingly familiar ring to it that was because it did: Nazi Germany. Moreover, according to Harriet A. Washington, not only did there appear to be a "shared vision of racial purity" between American and German eugenics through the International Society for Racial Hygiene, there was also a "cordial rivalry." Washington cited Virginia eugenicist Dr. Joseph S. Dejarnette who joked in a 1934 speech that, "The Germans are beating us at our own game."

But as the full horror of the Holocaust became indisputable, many American advocates of eugenics curtailed their programmes. At least 32 states had laws on their books that mandated surgical sterilization for individuals deemed to be unfit. And from 1907 through to the 1970s, it was a fate which befell more than 60,000 Americans.

But it wasn't just the United States which had a "dirty little secret": At least a dozen other countries have practised eugenics in some form or other. However, to its discredit, North Carolina accelerated their eugenics programme at the same time that others ran for cover; indeed, it was enshrined in a 1933 state law, and approximately 70 percent of all North Carolina's sterilizations were carried out in the post-war era.

But now, North Carolina had at least attempted restitution and was the first state to compensate victims. Arguably, it was better late than never -- although lawmakers had deliberated for a decade before setting aside one-time payments, after the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation found that up to 1,800 affected people were still alive. Thus far, however, fewer than 200 have been verified but other victims who remain unaccounted for have up until 2015 to come forward.

Eugenics could be likened to the practice of the 'dark arts' -- indeed, it was sinister in its application and also proved to be conveniently elastic. Discriminatory by design, eugenics evolved and became conflated with a taboo subject: women's, especially black women's, reproductive rights.

It's a very emotive subject. And central to the contention was a hugely controversial figure in the black community -- Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. According to Harriet A. Washington, she was "the most famous American popularizer of eugenics" and someone who "exploited black stereotypes" yet -- by shrewdly 'using' the 'The Negro Project' -- hers was a significant and enduring contribution to the polarizing issue.

Understandably, most people were abhorred that, in the past, states had decided to 'play god' by determining if sick babies and people with disabilities should live or die. Advances in medicine and society's changing perceptions made the practices unacceptable. But, arguably, the 'well of compassion' had run dry when the same eugenic mindset extended to the poor, women of color and, more recently, imprisoned women, generally. The question was stark: "Did have they have the right to have children -- especially when the authorities determined that they could ill afford to support them?"

Harriet A. Washington's thesis was that "The demonization of black parents, particularly mothers, as medically and behaviorally unfit has a long history, but twentieth-century eugenics provided the necessary biological underpinnings to scientifically validate these beliefs."

And Lutz Kaelber, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, pointed to a nefarious agenda: "By the 1950s, some in the white majority were becoming anxious about supporting blacks through welfare. The heads of the agencies of welfare departments agreed on the value of sterilization for reducing general welfare relief and ADC [Aid for Dependent Children] payments." Indeed, this was corroborated by statistics: the percentage of Blacks sterilized rose from 23 percent in the 1930s and 1940s; to 59 percent between 1958 and 60; and rose to 64 percent between 1964 and 1966.

Fannie Lou Hamer had the misfortune of being one of those statistics. "She might easily have endured the life of quiet desperation dictated by her birth," wrote Harriet A. Washington. Hamer's was, indeed, a challenging, hardscrabble life on a plantation where she toiled under the searing heat picking up to 400 pounds of cotton a day for $1 a hundredweight, informed Washington. On the face of it, she was a prime target for sterilization -- ostensibly, to break the cycle of poverty. However, while she might have been poor, she was also proud. And I can't imagine that this dignified, deeply religious woman would have willfully been a burden on the state -- had she been allowed to bear children.

Nevertheless, with the odds stacked heavily against her, somehow, Hamer found her voice. "She grew fascinated by political power as a means to redress injustice, and soon she did the unthinkable: She tried to register to vote," wrote Washington. Furthermore, this newly-found sense of purpose and politicization also included an attempt to run for Congress in 1964.

Rightly held in the highest regard as a giant of the Civil Rights Movement, as fate would have it, Fannie Lou Hamer's indomitable spirit dictated that she became a tireless champion in the pursuit of justice. Whilst this jeopardized her livelihood and endangered her life, she was courageous and remained undeterred. It was a fitting epitaph, therefore, that she managed to turn a personal tragedy into a greater triumph.