Cover Story: NC Forced Sterilization - | WBTV Charlotte

Cover Story: NC Forced Sterilization

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) -  She's one of the faces of what some call a shameful past in North Carolina.

Lela Dunston is now in her 60's but when she was just 13 years old she gave birth to a son.

That's when her doctors told her mother she was mentally disturbed and should be sterilized under the state's eugenics program.

Today the state is trying to figure out what price tag it should pay for forcing people to take part in the program.

There was a public meeting held in Charlotte Wednesday night to talk about this.

It's amazing how few people really know about this program.

But for 45 years thousands of people - men, women and children - whites and blacks were forcibly operated on to keep them from every having children.  

The program just ended in the mid-1970s.  How do you make it right today?

It's been an issue state lawmakers have been wrestling with for about a decade now lawmakers are getting ready to do something about it.

Victims have been telling their stories to a special task force trying to figure out how the state of North Carolina might compensate them.

Elaine Riddick was raped at age 14.  During the birth of her child, doctors sterilized her.

She says she didn't know what was happening to her at the time.

Neither did most people but a 2002 newspaper series exposed the ugly details of the North Carolina Eugenics Board.

From 1933 to 1977 the state operated on more than 7,000 people to keep them from having children.

Eugenics was an idea in the U.S. and other countries at the turn of the last century.

The concept was keeping people with "defective genes" from having children would benefit the human race.

Mecklenburg county sterilized more people than any other county in the state.

North Carolina leaders are now looking at how to compensate the victims.

"Get past the ethical and moral imperatives," House Speaker Thom Tillis told us.  "Think about what a profound taking this was. If you could excuse a government action that takes a part of your body.. then where does it end when it goes that far?

The state estimates there may be as many as 2,000 victims still living.

Some of them men.

"The nurse put a mask over my mouth and she told me to sing to her," Willis Lynch, one of the men sterilized when he was 12, was featured in a story that aired on CBS News.

During the short session which starts in May, state lawmakers in Raleigh are expected to vote on a compensation package for victims still living. 

They're considering awarding each victim $50,000.  They are trying to right a wrong during a dark time in the state's past.

"I think it's time to just step up and get it done," said Tillis.

State leaders are gathering information from the public before putting together legislation.. that's what Wednesday night's meeting in Center City was about.

Only about 72 victims have come forward so far.

Restitution of $50,000 may not seem like enough, and leaders admit it's not.

There's no amount of money that can make it right, they say, it's less about the money and more about the recognition of a horrible decision that government made for so many years.

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