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Deadline looms for US eugenics compensation

RALEIGH, North Carolina--In 1948, as Naomi Schenck was rushed into a North Carolina operating room because she was having a miscarriage, the then-17-year-old newlywed heard a doctor say: “Cut her.”

“I didn't know what 'cut her' meant,” said Schenck, now 83. She soon found out: Schenck said she was given a spinal tap and then sterilized against her will, just as some 7,600 others were from 1929 to 1974 under the state's eugenics program. Most were either forced or coerced into the procedure, though a small number of people chose to be sterilized.

Now, Schenck is among 520 sterilization victims and family members waiting to be paid a portion of the US$10 million fund established by North Carolina to compensate victims. The Office for Justice of Sterilization Victims estimates about 1,800 victims are still alive. Their deadline to file claims is Monday.

“I'll take whatever they give me, if they give me anything,” said Schenck, whose claim is still pending.

Eugenics programs in the U.S. were widely perceived as a legitimate effort to improve society by sterilizing people the state deemed inferior citizens incapable of caring for children. Victims were disproportionately poor, mentally disabled or African-American. Eugenics fell out of favor in most states when it became associated with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's ideas of racial purity during World War II.

North Carolina is the first of 33 states that ran forced sterilization programs to compensate victims. But getting victims to come forward can be difficult in some cases. For instance, at one recent legal clinic held by the University of North Carolina (UNC) Center for Civil Rights to guide people through the claims process, only one woman attended. She didn't want to be interviewed because she has been hiding the fact she was sterilized for over 40 years.

Jennifer Marsh, director of research for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, said some victims were so traumatized by what happened to them so long ago, they chose not to come forward.

“It's something in their past they've put behind them,” Marsh said. “It's very hard to bring that back up.”

Others have died awaiting compensation, and their families will not qualify for payments if they died before June 2013. Bertha D. Marks, whose mother was sterilized in 1965, won't receive any money because her mother died several years ago.

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