Sep 6 2015

In 1947, 14-year old Willis Lynch of Littleton, North Carolina was asked by a nurse to sing a song as she placed a mask over his face. Lynch unknowingly inhaled an anesthetic, and then underwent a vasectomy procedure without his consent. The forced sterilization was ordered by the state of North Carolina, which had deemed Lynch “feeble-minded” and unfit to produce children.Lynch, one of seven children of a widowed mother, was sent to a reform school three years earlier because of his propensity to get into fights with classmates. The state of North Carolina quickly targeted Lynch for sterilization and received his mother’s consent only after indicating his return to the family was contingent on her signature, going so far as to threaten to cut off the welfare payments she needed to care for her children.
Contrary to the declaration of the state, Willis Lynch is far from feeble-minded. As an adult, he would go on to serve our nation in the U.S. Army and become a pillar of his community, where he can often be seen and heard at his local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall showcasing his impressive singing and guitar-playing talents.
Notwithstanding his vast contributions to his country and community, Lynch has been forced to live his adult life knowing he would never realize his dream of having his own children and grandchildren after a state government motivated by prejudice denied him of his basic rights.
The gross moral injustice perpetrated against Willis Lynch wasn’t just an isolated incident — it was part of one of the darkest and most shameful chapters of modern American history that has flown under the public’s radar for far too long. Most Americans have little idea that during the 20th century, a majority of state governments created eugenics programs to sterilize more than 60,000 Americans — many against their will, and some without their knowledge. Many states specifically targeted and coerced unmarried mothers, African-Americans, and children from poor families into being sterilized, deeming them “unfit to reproduce.”
North Carolina is regarded as having run one of the most aggressive eugenics programs, which operated from 1929 to 1974 even though most states ended their programs following World War II. In total, more than 7,600 North Carolinians were sterilized, a majority of whom were African-Americans.
In recent times, North Carolina has been blessed to have leaders like former state Rep. Larry Womble, who fought tirelessly to shine a light on this indelible stain on our state’s legacy. These efforts prompted the Governor of North Carolina to formally apologize on behalf of the state in 2002, and eleven years later, North Carolina became the first state in the nation to compensate the living victims of its past eugenics program, providing a long overdue modicum of justice.
To date, 220 North Carolinians have been identified as victims and have been awarded approximately $20,000 each. Additionally, if no further living victims are identified, the remaining money in the state fund would bring their total compensation to approximately $45,000 each.
Earlier this year, Virginia followed suit by becoming the second state to pass eugenics compensation legislation, awarding $25,000 to each of the living victims of its own state-run forced sterilization program.
While these much-needed laws assist eugenics victims, an inadvertent consequence has arisen as victims begin to receive their compensation payments. Presently, the federal government counts the payments against one’s eligibility for federal benefits such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. Instead of helping the victims and their families make ends meet, the payments could actually result in the denial of the federal benefits they are entitled to.
To help close this unintended loophole, I recently introduced legislation in the Senate along with Senators Tom Carper, D-Del., Richard Burr, R-N.C., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., to exclude payments from state eugenics compensation programs from consideration in determining the eligibility and amount of federal benefits.
I am encouraged to see such broad, bipartisan support among my colleagues to help ensure living eugenics victims receive their full compensation payments and federal benefits. I also hope this legislation will raise awareness across the nation over the fact that these deplorable government-sanctioned programs existed in the first place. The stories of the terrible transgressions made against innocent Americans like Willis Lynch deserve to be heard and never forgotten.
While no amount of money or benefits will ever return to these individuals what they lost, now is time for other states to follow the lead of North Carolina and Virginia and pass similar compensation payment programs to help right the wrongs of the past. America will be better off for it.
Sen. Thom Tillis is a Republican from North Carolina.