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Eugenics Compensation Bill Moves Forward

Representative Larry Womble greets the granddaughter of a eugenics victim. A legislative committee yesterday gave near unanimous support to a measure that would compensate victims of North Carolina's forced sterilization program. The move was a coup for one Forsyth County Democrat who's spent 10 years trying get such a bill passed. Representative Larry Womble hadn't been to the State Capitol since late last year when he was seriously injured in a car accident. But he wouldn't miss yesterday's meeting- even if it meant arriving in a wheelchair with both legs held straight by braces. When it came time for him to address his colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee, he choked back tears. "This is not a perfect bill, but it is a bill that separates North Carolina from the rest of the world," said Womble. "This is a proud day." The bill would make North Carolina the first to compensate victims of state-sponsored sterilization. Some 7,600 people were rendered sterile - often against their will - by order of the North Carolina Eugenics Board. Womble's bill would pay $50,000 to living victims. It carries a price tag of $10 million dollars and the influential backing of Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, who has vowed to get the bill considered during the current legislative session. More than 50 other lawmakers from both parties have now signed on to co-sponsor it - which boggles Womble. "In the early years, it was hard to get people to support this," said Womble. "It's a 180 degree turnaround." For all it's taken to get to this point, Womble's bill got very little debate among committee members during the meeting yesterday, aside from a pointed exchange between Republican Representative George Cleveland and House Majority Leader Paul Stam. "The Eugenics program was despicable to say the best for it," began Cleveland. "But everything I read and everyone I talk make it sound like it was North Carolina's problem and only North Carolina. The eugenics program was a worldwide movement. I personally have a problem with compensation. People today paying for something that happened in the past, I don't think it's correct." "We cannot fix all the problems of the past, we cannot go back and change history," countered Stam, who is also a sponsor of the compensation bill. "But living amongst us are 1000 or 2000 people who today suffer because their bodies have been changed, invaded against their will by an act of an agency of the state of North Carolina. We can fix this. We can't fix their bodies, but we can pay compensation and we ought to do it so they can enjoy it before they die." Mecklenburg County Republican Ric Killian piped up too, saying he thought compensation of eugenics victims should be handled by the courts, not the legislature. "I just simply think it's the wrong venue for what we're trying to accomplish, and therefore I will also be voting against this," said Killian. Cleveland and Killian were in the minority on the committee of several dozen lawmakers. A voice vote in support of compensating sterilization victims was nearly unanimous. Afterward, Elaine Riddick wept. During this 10 year effort to get compensation for eugenics victims, she has been one of the most vocal - sterilized by the state when she was just 14. Riddick cried that the bill had passed the committee. And she cried that it wasn't unanimous. For her, any opposition to the measure is an endorsement of eugenics. "You want to think we live in a better world," she said, through tears. "And it's not fair that people think like that, I'm so crushed that they still think the same way." The eugenics compensation bill still needs the approval of two more committees before it goes to a vote on the House Floor. If it passes there, the Senate will take it up. Governor Bev Perdue has promised to sign it.