One by one, they gathered the “unfit” — the poor, the undesirables — and they took them aside. They began with mothers and their daughters, sterilizing parent and child in order to “protect” them from unplanned pregnancies. Then they continued with girls and boys, surgically altering their reproductive systems to prevent them from having their own offspring. Eventually, tens of thousands of men, women and children were either sterilized or “asexualized,” against their will. This didn’t happen in a fictional, dystopian future, or a long-forgotten fascist regime. Well into the 20th century—30 states including North Carolina, California and Virginia ran government sponsored and perfectly legal eugenic sterilization programs. Welcome to The State of Eugenics, where survivors are not forgotten and justice is little more than an illusion.
The State of Eugenics shines a light on a sorry and often-forgotten chapter in American history— the forced sterilization of thousands of Americans thought to have “undesirable” genetic make-ups. The film follows researchers and journalists who delved into dusty archives to bring North Carolina’s extensive eugenics program into the sunlight. When the journalists succeed in connecting those files to living survivors and the vast network of perpetrators are revealed, a grassroots movement begins, tirelessly insisting the state confront its nefarious past. The documentary – four years in the making – brings into focus the human tragedy that unfolded behind closed doors for decades and gives voice to survivors who believed their poverty would leave their stories untold and their pain unrecognized.
Across four decades, the state of North Carolina sterilized more than 7,600 people— men and women, adults and adolescents. The program ended in the 1970’s, dismantled after a landmark lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of survivor Nial Ruth Cox. This sordid history hsd been largely forgotten until December 2002 when the Winston–Salem Journal published a five-part series, “Against Their Will,” that examined in stunning detail North Carolina’s eugenics program.
Historian Johanna Schoen and reporters John Railey, Kevin Begos and Danielle Deaver put the horrors of forced sterilization back in the headlines, prompting Governor Mike Easley to apologize for his state’s eugenics policies. That apology, however, provided only cold comfort to survivors. The film interweaves the stories of crusading journalists and contrite politicians with the inner thoughts of eugenics survivors: Nial Ruth Cox, Willis Lynch, and Dorothy Mae Grant. The three had been sterilized as teenagers by a state Eugenics Board that had become increasingly aggressive about advocating for sterilization as the answer to problems of entrenched poverty.
As survivors’ stories unfold in the film, a new effort to atone for the wrongs done to them emerges— monetary compensation. At first, a liberal Democratic state legislator, Larry Womble, champions the idea. But only when legislator Thom Tillis, a rising star among conservative Republicans, becomes Speaker of the House, do Womble’s efforts begin to gain traction.
Filmmaker and Journalist Dawn Sinclair Shapiro garnered remarkable behind-the-scenes access to North Carolina lawmakers through three legislative sessions. The State of Eugenics follows these strange legislative bedfellows as they work to pass a compensation bill long thought to be a political non-starter. With North Carolina in the throes of bitter partisan battling, Tillis and Womble bond in their fight to right an injustice from decades past, eventually achieving unexpected success.
Throughout the political struggle and journalistic investigation, the stories of survivors stand out, and tug at the heart. Nial Ruth Cox, shows off her doll collection and tends her garden while ruing the fertility taken from her under the color of law. Willis Lynch’s guitar helps him express his frustration that the state ended his chance at fatherhood when they “cut on me just like cutting on a hog” (his rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is the film’s haunting coda). Dorothy Mae Grant points out the very room where doctors sterilized her, and then fights off disease just long enough to receive her compensation from the state.
Eugenics began as a hope that, through science, a more perfect union could be achieved by creating a more perfect citizenry. The practice took on an increasingly ugly racial cast in southern states as the Civil Rights movement made gains.
Though active eugenics programs have now been largely eliminated, the Supreme Court has never expressly overturned its verdict in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, in which justices— on an 8-to-1 vote— affirmed the constitutionality of state sterilization laws. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” declared Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the majority opinion that upheld compulsory sterilization for those deemed “unfit” by state officials. The State of Eugenics brings the past into focus as we struggle to define reproductive autonomy in the 21st Century.
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“The acting was good. I also liked the music. But it could have had one or two more car chases if you ask me.”
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