Womble’s last stand?
Before Rep. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth) turned himself in to the Forsyth County Magistrate’s office last week — he was charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle and released on his own recognizance — he made one last political maneuver in the interest of the public good.
Womble, wheelchair bound and clearly affected by injuries suffered in the Dec. 2, 2011 wreck, made a plea to the NC House committee overseeing the aftermath of the state’s eugenics program. More than 7,500 North Carolinians were forcibly sterilized from 1933 to 1974. As many as 2,000 of these people who were falsely deemed “mentally diseased, feeble-minded or epileptic” are still alive.
And though North Carolina was not the only state to embrace eugenics — 33 of them perpetrated the barbaric practice in the 20th century, and it persisted into the 1980s — we are preparing to be the first to do something about it other than offer an official apology, which Gov. Mike Easley proffered in 2002.
The House committee is considering a cash settlement for every survivor of the eugenics program: $50,000 for every man and woman deprived of the right to create a family and watch it grow. Womble came before the committee to make the case that — in this instance, anyway — North Carolina has the opportunity to be at the forefront of human rights by offering even a token sum to the people it has done wrong.
Womble came before the committee to make the case that — in this instance, anyway — North Carolina has the opportunity to be at the forefront of human rights by offering even a token sum to the people it has done wrong.
In a hoarse whisper he called it “a bill that separates North Carolina from the rest of the world.”
Sure, we’re potentially talking about $100 million here — though the bill only earmarks $10 million for the cause. But on the individual level $50,000 does not even begin to cover the cost of ruined dreams, dashed hopes, aborted plans. The desire to start a family is the most natural thing in the world; $50,000 is small solace. If anything, these victims deserve more.
The bill, H974, the Eugenics Compensation Program, will not reverse the mistakes of the past. House Majority Leader Skip Stam (R-Wake) said, “We cannot fix what happened in the past. We cannot fix their bodies, but we can pay compensation.”
The bill has passed the House committee with near-unanimous support. That is but the first step towards making this gesture come to be.
House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenberg) has vowed that the bill will not be folded into the budget bill, where it could be bargained away.
If that’s the case, it should move to the Senate this week. With bipartisan support, it should pass, though there are more than a few stalwarts who feel that the current government is not responsible for the mistakes of the past one.
To them we say that though they may not have been in on the decision to forcibly prevent North Carolinians from starting families, they can be a part of a game-changing gesture — however symbolic. And we remind them that voters are watching.
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