State Secret: Thousands Secretly Sterilized

N.C. Woman Among 65,000 Sterilized by Gov't., Often Without Their Knowledge, in 20th Century

ABC NEWS | May 15, 2005

May. 15, 2005 - Beneath the surface of this Southern town, with its lush evergreens and winding riverbanks, is a largely forgotten legacy of pain, secrecy and human indignity.

"My heart still bleeds, and it will forever bleed, because of what had happened to me," local resident Elaine Riddick said.

Riddick was one of thousands of people secretly sterilized by the state between 1929 and 1974.

From the early 1900s to the 1970s, some 65,000 men and women were sterilized in this country, many without their knowledge, as part of a government eugenics program to keep so-called undesirables from reproducing.

"The procedures that were done here were done to poor folks," said Steven Selden, professor at the University of Maryland. "They were thought to be poor because they had bad genes or bad inheritance, if you will. And so they would be the focus of the sterilization."

Sterilized Without Her Knowledge

Riddick was raped and became pregnant at the age of 13. Social workers labeled her promiscuous and too feeble-minded to ever be a responsible parent. So, after giving birth in 1968, Riddick was sterilized without being told.

She learned the truth years later, when she married and tried to have more children.

"They took so much away from me," Riddick said. "They took away my spirit and my soul."

North Carolina sterilized close to 8,000 women in hospitals across the state.

Even though the practice ended more than 30 years ago, some say the time has come to make amends. North Carolina was one of the first states out of 33 that once practiced sterilization to offer an apology. State Rep. Larry Womble is crafting a bill to provide financial reparations.

Some wonder where the state will get the money. "They say, 'Well, we can't afford it,' " said Womble, a Democrat. "Well, we cannot not afford it."

Riddick went on to earn a college degree and raise the son she had at 14. He now is an engineering consultant.

"I thank you, God, for giving me my child," she said.

ABC News' Keith Garvin originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" on April 23, 2005.