It's important to know about Elaine Riddick and what happened to her in North Carolina one godless day in 1967. Her disturbing personal story tells a troubling American tale that most of us would like to forget or deny.
But Riddick's story provides a living history of the American eugenics movement, experienced by tens of thousands of people who were forcibly sterilized by order of their state's governments. In fact, California was one of 32 states that supported and practiced eugenics, and about one-third of the 64,000 sterilizations that occurred nationwide between the dawn of the 20th century and the late 1970s were performed in California.
Riddick was a 13-year-old African-American who, in 1967, became pregnant after being raped by a neighbor in Winfall, N.C. She gave birth to a son whom she dutifully raised.
Six years later -- now married and desiring more children -- Riddick grimly discovered that she'd been sterilized. She was shocked when a doctor informed her that she could no longer bear children because she had been "butchered."
Riddick's trail of discovery brought her back to North Carolina, where government records documented that she had been sterilized by state orders without her knowledge immediately after delivering her son. A five-person state eugenics board in Raleigh had approved her sterilization based upon social workers' assessments characterizing her as a "promiscuous" and "feebleminded" person who
After hearing of those allegations years later, she poignantly declared: "I couldn't get along well with others because I was hungry. I was cold. I was a victim of rape." She also learned that her illiterate grandmother had signed the consent form with an X, believing that sterilization would prevent her being sent to an orphanage.
As Riddick publicly proclaimed last year: "I was raped by a perpetrator (who was never charged), and then I was raped by the state of North Carolina. They took something from me both times."
Notably, despite being diagnosed as feebleminded, Riddick attended college, and her son became a successful businessman. Seeking justice, she once sued North Carolina for $1 million. Her case even wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court declined its hearing on appeal.
Still, Riddick persisted in speaking out, and last year she testified before an assembly of North Carolina legislators who had initiated efforts to compensate people who had been involuntarily sterilized. At the end of those hearings, she and fellow victims of the state's eugenics program were hopeful about receiving an apology made more real in the form of $50,000 in compensation per victim -- not much, really, considering what the state had taken from them. They eagerly anticipated seeing budgetary provisions to cover the cost of compensation in the state's future 2012 budget.
Regrettably, however, on Thursday the North Carolina House and Senate passed the state budget and sent it to the governor with veto-proof majorities. It contained no provisions to compensate victims like Riddick. Several legislators publicly apologized for a moral failure of governance, while others claimed that the state could not afford the reparations.
Some insisted that the current generation ought not be held responsible for the transgressions of prior generations.
But I look at Riddick and I see the living present inextricably connected to our living past. I see no bright line separating her now from what was done to her back then. In her time -- in many of our lifetimes -- the majority of states in this country, backed with citizen approval, declared it was OK to sterilize people against their will and without their knowledge. We said it was OK to rob people of the chance to bear children because they were feebleminded, maladjusted, sexually promiscuous, or simply "delinquent." Because they had sexually transmitted infections or epilepsy. Because they were poor or not white. Because powerful cultural icons and moneyed corporations supported the American eugenics movement and believed that -- as the Pasadena-based Human Betterment Foundation proclaimed -- eugenic sterilization was "a practical and necessary step to prevent racial deterioration."
I listen to Riddick and I hear echoes of the past mingled with murmurs in the present. I hear the old biases feeding into calculated valuations of people's lives when we talk about genetic engineering, health care disparities or discriminating social and economic conditions that prioritize some lives over others.
It is impossible to know what legitimately compensates for a life unlived or foreshortened. But surely we can agree that we do not exist in isolated moments, unaffected by memory. Surely we can say that Riddick was wronged on our collective watch, and it matters deeply in the punishing present.
Kate Scannell is a Bay Area physician and the author most recently of "Flood Stage."