Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program

Reporters for the “Winston-Salem Journal” have obtained sealed records and are lifting the curtain on a horrifying truth: From 1933-1974, five members of the North Carolina eugenics board met every month and voted to sterilize up to 30 complete strangers in the name of the “greater good.”

Eugenics was the controversial practice of weeding out undesirable genetics by forced sterilization. Most of those sterilized were poor, illiterate, hypersexual, homosexual, promiscuous, or lazy — characteristics deemed “undesirable.” By the program’s end, 7,600 people had been sterilized against their will. About 60% were black, and 99% were female, including Elaine Riddick Jessie, who shares her traumatic story. Some board members admit to battling a crisis of conscience but say it was difficult to vote against the tide of prevailing ideas and the support of North Carolina’s medical and political elite. It’s a story of a program that began with high hopes and good intentions but quickly devolved into something tragic and troubling.

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