North Carolina Law Review

University of North Carolina School of Law

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Chapel Hill, NC 27514

The Eugenics Movement in North Carolina

94 N.C. L. Rev. 1871 (2016) 


This Article places North Carolina into the social, political, and legal context of the movement in the United States that resulted in the sterilization of more than thirty thousand people from the 1920s through the 1960s. We sketch the social and political arguments that were mobilized to support sterilization, as well as the jurisprudence that developed alongside these arguments from the 1910s through the 1930s. 


State courts were initially slow to accept sterilization until the United States Supreme Court’s decision in 1927 in Buck v. Bell. Following this decision, courts and legislatures around the United States more readily accepted these practices, even as legal scholars expressed reservations about sterilization. For nearly two decades, until the United States’ entrance into World War II, sterilization was broadly accepted by courts. But the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Skinner v. Oklahoma in 1942 began to turn the tide against sterilization, as did unease with a procedure that was reminiscent of practices touted in Nazi Germany. Yet, even after Skinner v. Oklahoma and the end of World War II, as the rest of the nation began to abandon sterilization, sterilizations continued in North Carolina.


The legal basis for allowing sterilization in North Carolina was that procedural safeguards could overcome any concerns about infringement of personal liberty. This same due process, however, ultimately required the state to develop machinery to facilitate sterilization. The Eugenics Board of North Carolina, the state board in charge of reviewing petitions from public health officials for sterilization, produced pre-printed forms to hasten the approval of sterilizations. The Eugenics Board routinely granted the vast majority of sterilization petitions and the few sterilization orders that were challenged in court were regularly upheld. While the number of coerced sterilizations is unknown, the practice disproportionately impacted lower income, and later, female and African American, North Carolinians.


Recent legislation in North Carolina provides modest payments to the victims of the state’s sterilization program. While payments for this concentrated episode of state infringement on personal liberty should be applauded, the group of recipients may be both under- and over-inclusive, and some victims have problems proving their entitlement to compensation. Nevertheless, the North Carolina legislation provides a model for legislative action in other states. This dark chapter of North Carolina history is critical to the legal community’s collective conscious, lest we again allow an administrative apparatus of the state to overshadow and obliterate our most dearly held freedoms. 



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