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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 May 2007, 09:02 GMT 10:02 UK
A woman robbed of her fertility
By Jo Meek
Producer, Radio Four's Sterilised Nation

Elaine Riddick is a petite woman in her early fifties with a warm smile.

Today she lives in a comfortable home on the outskirts of Atlanta, but this wasn't how she spent her childhood.

Elaine Riddick
Elaine was sterilised without her knowledge

She grew up in North Carolina with a violent father and an alcoholic mother.

She believes that the state used her chaotic childhood as a justification to sterilise her.

"When I was 13, I was raped. I had my beautiful son and when they cut me open, I had a caesarean, they sterilised me at the same time," she said.

"I didn't know anything about it until I was 19. I got married and tried to have a child. The doctor told me I had been butchered."

Eugenics movement

It sounds like a story from the dark ages but this happened less than 40 years ago. And it happened in the US.

I think they saw it as a way to control me
Elaine Riddick

Whilst the feminist movement was gaining ground on both sides of the Atlantic, across poor America their 'sisters' were victims of sterilisation laws, which had their foundations in the eugenics movement.

This year marks the centenary of the first eugenics laws passed in the United States.

Policies were drawn up in over 30 states in the US to sterilise women, men and children who were considered to be physically, mentally or morally 'defective'.

But in reality the majority of those who were sterilised were simply poor women.

Few have ever spoken about what happened because of embarrassment and shame.

Speaking out

But with her only son, Tony, by her side, Elaine Riddick has chosen to speak out about what happened to her.

"I think they saw it as a way to control me. They saw my parents were not available, so the state of North Carolina decided that they were going to sterilise me. I did nothing wrong.

"Now I'm healing a little bit I can talk about this. I can look you in the eye. I am not feeble minded. That's the reason they gave for doing that to me."

Between 1929 and 1974, across the state of North Carolina, more than 7600 men, women and children were sterilised.

Documents from the state's eugenics board reveal how for nearly 50 years this unelected body authorised 90% of all sterilisation cases brought before it.

Social workers used gossip in their reports for the Eugenics Board.

Promiscuity

Elaine Riddick's form refers to "community reports that she was 'running around' late at night" and her "promisicuity" and her "inability to control herself" constituted grounds for sterilisation.

The state is victimising the children who have already been victimised by their parents
John Railey

By the late 1960s, ironically as the Civil Rights movement grew, North Carolina began to target its Black population.

More than 60% of those sterilised were black women and girls like Elaine Riddick.

Records show that in North Carolina out of the 7,000 sterilisations less than 500 took place with the clear consent of the patient. The vast majority were much more complicated.

State records, seen by Winston Salem Journal reporter John Railey, reveal cases where parents who were abusing their children would then agree to their sterilisation.

"You have a sick cycle. The father was committing incest and was given the right of consent for her sterilisation.

"The state is victimising the children who have already been victimised by their parents."

State records conservatively estimate that between 1943 and 1963, over 63,000 people were sterilised under the eugenics laws in America.

Apologies

Whilst five states, including North Carolina, have issued apologies for the sterilisations carried out under eugenics laws, the federal government has never acknowledged that any sterilisation abuses have ever taken place.

Paul Lombardo is professor of Law at Georgia State University and he has devoted himself to this issue for the past 27 years.

He believes that it is a shameful history, and one that needs to be openly recognised.

But at the moment that doesn't seem likely.

"I hear from time to time from women who have been sterilised against their will, the difficulty is documentation," he said.

"Even when there are records, when you ask them to come forward, being sterilised isn't something that people want to broadcast, so they stay hidden."

But until there is recognition that this happened, Elaine Riddick says today there is still no reason for other women to tell their stories.

"I can understand why they won't come forward, because they don't want their next door neighbour to know this happened. I felt same way. I have resentment - I will always have it for my Government.

"That's just how I feel. Angry. You took something away from me and you can never give it back."

Sterilised Nation is on Radio 4 at 1100 BST on Wed 23 May 2007 then online for seven days at Radio 4's Listen again page. The progamme is by All Out Productions.


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