The State Can't Control a Woman's Body

A 13-year-old girl was brutally raped in Winfall, North Carolina in 1967, becoming impregnated after the vicious attack. After she gave birth, doctors cut and tied her fallopian tubes, permanently sterilizing her without her consent. Although this sounds like an episode of a serialized drama like Law & Order: SVU, it is actually the true story of Elaine Riddick; one of the thousands of victims of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina’s (EBNC). Although this method of coerced sterilization by the government may be a remnant of the past, it does illustrate how women’s bodies have always been closely regulated by the state. Brave women like Riddick have recently come forward in hopes that by sharing their story, women’s reproductive rights are given the attention it needs.

The five-person eugenics board in Raleigh recommended Riddick be sterilized for her own good, labeling her “feebleminded” and “promiscuous.” Years later when she was married and desired to start a family of her own that Riddick would discover the extent of the damage. When going in for an appointment to figure out why she was having difficulty conceiving, doctors informed her that would be impossible because of what she had been subjected to. This is just one of the many victims of a sterilization program that was run in 31 states from the late 1960s all the way to 2003.  

The EBNC was established as part of what seems to be nothing more than a government sponsored social experiment to curb the rising tide of “undesirable” citizens. Eugenicists believed that things like alcoholism, poverty, promiscuity and other disadvantageous circumstances were genetic, targeting the mentally ill, the poor, and those too young to defend their rights. Between 1929 and 1974, it is estimated 7,600 people were sterilized by the North Carolina board (85% were female and 40% non-white).

This atrocity is unacceptable. North Carolina Governor Barbara Perdue has expressed her sympathy towards these women, saying that what occurred should have never happened during an exclusive interview with NBC News, yet little has been done in terms of reparations for the victims. Out of the possible 2,000 victims that are still living, only 48 women have been identified in order to receive any kind of reparations. A special task force under Perdue has recommended that victims be given between $20,000 — $50,000, but some critics have said that the state is trying to prolong the process in order to outlast the victims and avoid payment. 

Stories like this show the importance of sexual health facilities like Planned Parenthood and sexual education classes, especially when their funding is constantly in jeopardy. With these programs, many of the issues the government hopes to avoid — like an increase in the number of welfare babies — can be avoided. What North Carolina did to those young women cannot be forgiven or forgotten, but it can forge a new path for women to take control of their own lives.

Photo Credit: possumgirl2