By Wade Rawlins
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Living victims of a state-sanctioned sterilization program in North Carolina would receive $50,000 in tax-free compensation if a bill approved on Tuesday by the state's House of Representatives becomes law.
North Carolina would become the first state to offer more than an apology for forced sterilizations and castrations of thousands of citizens if the state Senate also passes the compensation bill and the governor signs it.
Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue has included money in her proposed budget to fund the payments.
"This is the least we can do," said Democratic state Representative Paul Luebke during more than an hour of debate that ended with the measure passing 86-31. "We need to recognize that our state was one of the worst, if not the worst, in the promulgation and maintenance of this program."
Nearly 7,600 people, mostly women, were sterilized from 1929 to 1974 under the state's Eugenics Board program aimed at improving society by culling people deemed unfit to reproduce. These included the mentally handicapped, insane and those convicted of crimes. Many of the victims were poor, undereducated and institutionalized.
More than 30 U.S. states had eugenics programs in the early 20th century, and more than 60,000 people underwent documented sterilization procedures nationwide, according to the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation.
Most of those programs ended after World War Two. But the peak years of North Carolina's program were from 1946 to 1968, leaving the state with more living victims as a result. To date, the state has verified more than 100 surviving victims.
"Whoever they are, they deserve compensation," said Republican Representative Paul Stam, the House majority leader. "We owe it to them, not in a legal sense, but in a moral sense. It was a sad program that lasted for several decades and had its genesis in a philosophy that is alien to the American spirit."
The eugenics compensation bill had the support of the House leadership, but its chances in the state Senate are less clear. It could become part of budget negotiations between the two chambers.
"I'm hopeful the Senate will put it on the calendar, and it will be warmly received," said Senator Floyd McKissick, a Democrat who sponsored the companion legislation in that chamber.
Earlier this year, a state eugenics compensation task force appointed by Perdue recommended awarding $50,000 to each of the estimated 1,500 to 2,000 living victims of the sterilization program, along with a package of mental health services.
The task force said that, while no amount of restitution could compensate someone for denying them the ability to have children, the awards would send a clear message that North Carolina took responsibility for its mistakes and would not tolerate trampling on basic human rights.
The legislation passed on Tuesday creates a state Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims to assist in determining compensation eligibility and to attempt to contact victims.
(Editing By Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston; Desking by Christopher Wilson)