Elaine Riddick was 13 years old when she says she was raped by a neighbor in Winfall, N.C. Nine months later, in 1968, she was involuntarily sterilized in the hospital while delivering her first and only child.
“I had no idea,” she told The Washington Post, adding that she didn’t find out about the operation until five years later, at age 19, after she had married and hoped to have more children.
The doctors “butchered” her — cutting, tying and cauterizing her fallopian tubes — she said she was told when she learned of her sterilization during a medical examination. After the sterilization, Riddick had lost blood and fallen ill frequently. “I didn’t have a childhood because of the hemorrhaging and passing out,” she said. “This is how badly they damaged my insides.”
Riddick, who is now 68 and lives in Marietta, Ga., is one of tens of thousands of survivors of forced sterilization in the 20th century — a disproportionate share of them Black, like Riddick. She was subjected to a eugenics program by the state of North Carolina, which sterilized 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974 because they were deemed “unfit” to be parents. In 2017, after fighting for compensation for almost 50 years, she received $47,000 from the state.
North Carolina had labeled Riddick “feebleminded” — the same justification that had been used in 1924 to authorize the sterilization of Carrie Buck, a Virginia woman who had also been raped as a minor. Buck’s case went to the Supreme Court, which in its 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell upheld mandatory sterilizations of people considered unfit to bear and raise children. That decision has never formally been overturned.
With the Supreme Court’s decision last month in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, states now have full license to legally compel a person to continue a pregnancy. For many activists and legal experts, this isn’t a far cry from Buck, which used similar legal reasoning to allow the government to prevent certain people from becoming pregnant in the first place. Some lawyers and activists worry that the use of forced sterilization could be expanded after the Dobbs decision.