A couple of months ago, I wrote a story about the excellent and horrifying exhibit “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. It describes how Nazi Germany took the pseudo-science of eugenics—or “racial hygiene”; attempting to create a purer race through breeding, sterilization, and eventually murder—to its extreme. Jews would eventually suffer the brunt of these policies, from sterilization programs to outright death in gas chambers. But many Germans with simple disabilities like mental retardation or epilepsy had their share of racial cleansing too.
One of the more shocking things to learn in the exhibit, which closes on Jan. 16, is how respectable the science of eugenics was throughout Western society. The Nazis may have exploited it to abysmal ends, but doctors and policy-makers everywhere, including America, prescribed to eugenics theory. More than thirty states had established eugenics boards by the 1930s, and many lasted through the 1970s, whose legal mandate was to prevent the inheritance of disabilities from passing on to future generations. In California, 20,000 people—mentally handicapped; young women showing the psychological scars of rape; repeat offenders of petty crimes—were sterilized by the time the program was ended. In North Carolina, about 7,600 were sterilized.
What I had not realized at the show was how several states are, in 2012, still grappling with that past. The New York Times had a national story in today’s paper about how, in North Carolina, which continued to sterilize people through 1977, is still deciding how to bring justice to the people sterilized by the program. The news today was that the board responsible for dealing with their claims decided that each living member—about 72 have identified themselves as being sterilized, that are still living—would get $50,000 each.
Some victims said it was good enough, while others were less satisfied. One victim, Elaine Riddick, now 58, and who was sterilized after a rape left her pregnant at 13, told The Times that she wanted $1 million. “They took away something from me that was so valuable that I can never get back,” she said.
If you want to learn more about eugenics programs in America, read this earlier story in The Times. And if you want to learn about the eugenics movement throughout Western society, and especially in Nazi Germany, go see the exhibit before it closes.