Why US Continued Eugenics Programs Post-Holocaust

Originally published on June 23, 2011 12:20 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're going to ask a question we've asked before: What about the women of Afghanistan? President Obama last night spoke about the withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops from the country. We want to ask what effect that drawdown may or may not have on the status of women there. We're going to have that conversation in a few minutes.

But first, a new look at a dark chapter in American history: eugenics programs that existed in a number of states. And this might be a good time to mention that this conversation might not be appropriate for all listeners. So that being said, thousands of people were forcibly sterilized in North Carolina. It was happening there up until 1974.

Certain were deemed by the state unfit to reproduce, some because they were mentally ill or had epilepsy, some because they had been teenage mothers, survivors of rape or incest. Some had low IQs, and some were gay.

Yesterday, North Carolina lawmakers heard testimony from people who were affected by the sterilization program. They're considering compensation for the victims. Here is one of the witnesses they heard, Elaine Riddick. She was forcibly sterilized at the age of 14.


ELAINE RIDDICK: I have to get out what State of North Carolina did to me. I am not feeble-minded. I've never been feeble-minded. They slandered me. They ridiculed and harassed me. They cut me open like I was a hog.

MARTIN: That's from member station WFAE in Charlotte. To hear a unique perspective on the functioning of the now defunct eugenics board within North Carolina's medical system, we've called upon a therapist who worked during its existence and, in fact, recalls recommending at least two patients for sterilization.

From 1969 to 1980, Mary Kilburn worked as a psychologist for the state social services department. She is now retired but she was nice enough to join us from Raleigh, North Carolina. Dr. Kilburn, thanks for joining us.

Dr. MARY KILBURN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Is this a difficult thing to talk about?

KILBURN: This is all very sad business. But I have to correct one thing you said in the introduction. Psychologists did not recommend people for sterilization. And so that's inaccurate...

MARTIN: OK. Tell me, what was your role in the process?

KILBURN: To accept a referral from the social workers in the county for protective services to do an evaluation, a mental examination or IQ testing on someone they had deemed to be appropriate for sterilization. And then to take the result of that testing to a conference room where the directors of public health, mental health, social services deliberated very gravely before declaring that someone was to be sterilized.

And then the two cases I recall being involved, the parents of the young lady brought the woman to us requesting sterilization, talked with the psychologist as background for the intelligence testing, stated their belief that the daughter was incapable of protecting herself. And the IQ testing in the two cases bore that out.

For example, the young woman would not have been able to prepare her food, certainly not to read or write. They could not be with her 24/7, and in both cases, the daughters had been raped and impregnated. And the reason I'm willing to speak about this very sad business, is that many fine and well-meaning people participated under the rubric of alleviating human suffering.

It never occurred to me, for example, that I was participating in anything that was not absolutely a public service. So to hear the statements of people who were harmed by it is just horrifying. But I think the voices of those who were helped by, deserve to be heard. So thank you for letting me give a snippet of the situation as I experienced it.

MARTIN: Do you know now, that about more than 7,000 people were sterilized under this program? About 7,600 people?

KILBURN: I do not know anything except what I read in the paper. I didn't have the big picture. I just had a very little, tiny slice of it and that had been slightly misrepresented in the press.

For example, people were referred for all sorts of reasons, like to get vocational rehabilitation, special education, adoption. This was just a teeny tiny bit of the functioning.

MARTIN: So, your role in it, the recollection that you specifically have is these were two patients who were brought in by their parents, who felt that it was in their children's best interest to be sterilized. And your role was to what? Certify their level of functioning?

KILBURN: My role was simply to give a psychological IQ test and report the results of that to the board.

MARTIN: You weren't aware that there people who were being sterilized who were perfectly capable of functioning, just because they had been victims of a rape.

KILBURN: Oh, absolutely not.

MARTIN: For example.

KILBURN: Absolutely not. That's why I'm so surprised to hear these people because the people that I had experience with could not have made these statements. They could hardly speak. But obviously there was a bigger picture that I wasn't a part of.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about North Carolina's sterilization program, which existed until 1977. The last sterilization was performed in 1974. My guest is Mary Kilburn. She's a retired psychologist who administered IQ tests to people who had been presented for sterilization before the eugenics board.

One of the things that, if I can use this analogy, that is so shocking to people is that this went on as long as it did - this is after the era of the Holocaust when, as we know, the Nazis were very much engaged in managing the population of people according to their own rules. That anybody who they deemed unfit was subject to any kind of treatment.

And so that's why I think many people don't understand why people who were involved in this process stepped forward to say this is a violation of fundamental human rights.

KILBURN: Well, I can't understand that either because, as I said, the people that - with whom I was involved were simply unable to care for a child. And I did recall thinking the parents are not protecting the girls so much as they are themselves because they were the ones who had to raise the child.

MARTIN: What do you think we should learn from this?

KILBURN: Well, I think what we learn is that we operate within the historical context. And that something can look quite different 40 years later than it did at the time. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and I recall never having any sense that Mississippi was a danger. And yet I heard someone on a national news show, recently, say, why do people choose to leave and live in such a dangerous place? And, you know, that was the first time I had thought of that.

So we are creatures of our culture and time. And things, in retrospect, can appear much clearer and certainly different than they did at the time of the participation. I know if the state asked me to give somebody an IQ test, I would give them the IQ test. And as I say, the cases then which I was participatory, the person to be sterilized didn't object - not that she could have - she couldn't have given meaningful consent, nor objected because these were people who were severely mentally challenged.

MARTIN: In retrospect, do you think you did the right thing?

KILBURN: I think I did my job, which was to give an IQ test and I think I did it accurately and well. I could not imagine the person I was - the 35-year-old questioning the state - or even in my own mind, it simply did not occur that this might be something that wasn't totally to alleviate human suffering. That's what we were all about, we thought.

MARTIN: Mary Kilburn is a psychologist. She is now retired. She participated in a small way in North Carolina's eugenics board when she was with the state's social services department. And she joined us from Raleigh, North Carolina. Dr. Kilburn, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your insights.

KILBURN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.