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ATLANTA, Ga., and LITTLETON, N.C.—When Elaine Riddick saw the recently released videos of Planned Parenthood workers picking through the tiny remains of aborted babies, she was horrified. Riddick herself is no stranger to childhood—or reproductive—violence.
From her dining room in suburban Atlanta, Riddick, 61, points to a half-inch scar above her right eye as she remembers the afternoon in 1967 when her life irrevocably changed. At age 13, Riddick was walking home in rural eastern North Carolina when a grown man from her small town attacked her: Riddick says he raped her and threatened to kill her if she told anyone. She stayed quiet.
A few weeks later, while she was picking cotton, Riddick vomited. She thought she had a virus, but when she started gaining weight, her grandmother took her to the county health department. The young girl was pregnant.
Instead of launching an investigation, welfare officials recommended doctors sterilize Riddick after she delivered her baby. They deemed her promiscuous and “feeble-minded.” Without benefit of a review or accountability process, the government declared Riddick at age 13 unfit ever to reproduce again.
‘There is a connection, whether you’re killing a baby or killing a woman’s womb.’—Riddick
Her forced sterilization wasn’t an isolated incident. From the 1930s to 1970s, officials from government agencies and eugenics boards across 33 states ordered sterilization for at least 60,000 men, women, and children deemed undesirable or unfit.
Reasons ranged from family poverty to a sweeping, ill-defined category of “feeble-mindedness” that ensnared victims of both below-average and above-average intelligence. Eugenics literature decried the idea of these “morons” bearing children.
The plan behind eugenics—driven by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection (also known as survival of the fittest)—was simple and chilling: Eliminate certain future problems by eliminating certain future people.
Germany adopted similar sterilization laws in the 1930s, and the American movement in part inspired Adolf Hitler in his genocidal campaign to exterminate millions of victims based on his notions of racial superiority.
In North Carolina, five men on the state’s eugenics board regularly gathered in a Raleigh meeting room, reading short files on intended targets, and often condemning them to childlessness.
Officials convinced Riddick’s grandmother—the girl’s guardian—to authorize her sterilization procedure. Her grandmother was poor, illiterate, and afraid. She signed the papers with an X. Riddick had no idea.
A few months later, doctors put Riddick to sleep as the 14-year-old delivered a healthy baby boy. When she awoke, she didn’t know physicians had cut, burned, and tied her fallopian tubes as well.
Riddick suffered chronic health problems, but didn’t know about the sterilization until she married at age 19 and learned she couldn’t conceive children. After a medical exam, she says a doctor told her: “Someone butchered you.”
More than 40 years later, Riddick says the revelation destroyed her tumultuous marriage. She closes her eyes and lowers her voice when she recounts her first husband saying she was “like a tree that bore no fruit.”
Now, when Riddick watches the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood workers picking apart aborted babies and joking about their remains, she feels indignation like many viewers. But she also feels particular sympathy for the unborn children.
“It’s as if those babies didn’t have the right to live, and I didn’t have the right to bear children,” Riddick says. “And there is a connection, whether you’re killing a baby or killing a woman’s womb … I don’t think anyone is qualified to decide who should live and who should give birth.”
TRAGICALLY, government officials, scientists, politicians, philanthropists, and physicians—including many Planned Parenthood workers—have been making such decisions for nearly a century.
In the early 20th century, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger—an ardent eugenicist—infamously referred to lower classes and those she deemed unfit as “ human waste,” and she championed mass sterilization of so-called defective classes of people.
Despite Sanger’s abhorrent views, Planned Parenthood still celebrates her legacy, emphasizing her advocacy of birth control and doling out an annual “Margaret Sanger Award.” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton accepted a Sanger award in 2009, while she served as U.S. secretary of state.
On Aug. 27, Clinton railed GOP presidential candidates calling for the federal government to defund Planned Parenthood.
“Now, extreme views about women, we expect that from some of the terrorist groups, we expect that from people who don’t want to live in the modern world, but it’s a little hard to take from Republicans who want to be President of the United States, yet espouse out of date, out of touch policies” she said. “They are dead wrong for 21st century America.”
Many of the same leaders who have condemned America’s decades-long eugenics movement against the so-called unfit continue to support another decades-long movement with the same underpinnings: the state-approved abortions of millions of unborn children deemed by parents or doctors as unfit to live, whether out of poverty, disability, or inconvenience.
As the undercover videos produced by The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) graphically underscore, abortionists are still eliminating people they consider mere “products of conception.” And they are doing it largely at the behest of the federally funded Planned Parenthood. Riddick doesn’t see much difference between the abortion movement and the eugenics campaign that left her and thousands of others barren: “All the other children I could have had or might have had—they murdered them in my womb before they ever even got a chance.”
ELIMINATING undesirable people before they had a chance was the core of the eugenics movement. One of its earliest proponents, Francis Galton, was the cousin of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin and a leading mathematician at Cambridge University in England.
Embracing Darwin’s theory of man as merely an evolving animal, Galton suggested that desirable human qualities were genetic, and that a superior race could be formed by breeding the best people: “Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?” Galton coined a new term for his ideas by combining the Greek words for well and born to form the word eugenics, and he commended eugenics as “a national religion.”
By 1905, Harvard-educated scientist Charles Davenport was preaching the religion of eugenics in America. After opening a lab at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., Davenport established a Eugenics Record Office to record the genetic backgrounds of as many Americans as possible.
The goal: separate the fit from the unfit, so the fit would thrive. The means: segregate populations during their reproductive years—or sterilize the genetically inferior so they couldn’t reproduce at all.
It was an artificial way to encourage natural selection.
The so-called unfit fell into broad categories, including races considered inferior by Davenport and other eugenicists. But they also included the poor, the needy, the criminal, the weak, the disabled, and even the blind. Davenport boasted: “The day is coming to an end when convicts, paupers, the anti-social, the disliked of their own countries, the unemployable and unassimilable are to be permitted to mingle their germ plasm with that of the stock already in America.”
This wasn’t fringe science.
Eugenics—including the notions of forced sterilization, segregation, and draconian marriage laws to keep populations from mixing—found favor with scientists from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the National Academy of Sciences.
The American Museum of Natural History hosted a major exhibit in 1932 touting eugenics and erected statues of Galton and Darwin as fathers of the movement. Major philanthropists like the Carnegies and Rockefellers heavily funded eugenicist projects, and U.S. government agencies collaborated with eugenic scientists.
Margaret Sanger wasn’t a scientist, but she vehemently embraced eugenics and believed the best way to reduce what she and other eugenicists considered undesirable populations was to prevent their conception. The activist promoted birth control, but she also advocated sterilizations of lower classes as part of her American Birth Control League—the organization that later became Planned Parenthood.
Sanger quoted eugenicist and botanist Luther Burbank’s offensive propaganda claiming lower classes are “weeds” to be eliminated. She condemned charitable efforts to help the poor and needy, lamenting the perpetuation of “undesirables,” and calling such people “this dead weight of human waste.” In her book The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger wrote, “When we realize that each feeble-minded person is a potential source of endless progeny of defect, we prefer the policy of immediate sterilization, of making sure that parenthood is absolutely prohibited to the feeble-minded.”
By 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The court considered the case of Carrie Buck, a Virginia woman deemed feebleminded and promiscuous (Buck had actually been raped), and who faced a sterilization order from the state. Buck lost.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, also a Darwinist, wrote the majority opinion: “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring from crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
The decision opened a floodgate: Dozens of states passed laws allowing state officials to order sterilization of citizens deemed unfit to reproduce, and tyrants like Hitler considered how to take eugenics to its extreme end.
MEANWHILE, thousands of children became easy targets. Nearly two decades before Elaine Riddick faced sterilization, Willis Lynch met the same abuse at the hands of state officials.
Lynch still lives seven miles from where he was born in rural Littleton, N.C., in 1933. Standing near his tiny trailer where he lives alone near lush tobacco fields, Lynch, 82, remembers the day in 1948 when workers from Caswell Training School took him to a local hospital. The teenager didn’t know what was happening, but a nurse suggested he sing a song while she administered anesthesia. When he woke up, Lynch couldn’t stand up straight. Later, he would realize doctors had performed a vasectomy.
Lynch was 14 years old.
The young boy had lived at Caswell Training School for two years, after getting into trouble at home. At home, Lynch, one of seven children, had lived with his single mother on a rural farm. The family was poor, and his mother gleaned corn and other produce from the fields of a kind farmer.
Lynch says he was a troublemaker, and welfare officials sent him to Caswell to set him straight: “It was a school for mean boys and mean girls.” But Lynch endured cruel treatment there, including beatings from authorities, and ultimately sterilization. His mother signed the order. Lynch thinks she feared they wouldn’t release him from the school if she refused. She died 10 years ago, but mother and son never discussed it.
Like other eugenics victims, Lynch learned the fuller history when the Winston-Salem Journal ran a series of articles in 2002 revealing harrowing records from North Carolina’s aggressive eugenics program.
Lynch’s records show his diagnosis: “feeble-mindedness.”
When Lynch talks about his life history now, his mind seems sharper than that of some people half his age. He recounts his mother died on May 26, 2005. He recalls he stopped smoking shortly after eating a sausage biscuit on “July 9, 1984—a Monday morning.” He plays guitar and recounts precise details about the life of his favorite country singer—Hank Williams Sr.
Behind his trailer, Lynch peers under the hood of a 1982 Ford Mustang he bought in 1996. He’s rebuilt the engine and does all his own repairs. He served in the military for two years (and remembers every place he was stationed), and he’s held jobs with plumbers, electricians, and mechanics. “No, I’m not feebleminded,” he says. “I can do just about anything.”
Lynch doesn’t dwell on his sterilization, but he does wonder why he was targeted. “I figure the state didn’t want me to have no kids because I was mean,” he says. “That was the only thing I could figure.”
He was married once, nearly 50 years ago, to a woman with two small children, but he says she left after eight years. He always wished for children of his own—probably two or three. “’Cause you know I love children,” he says. “Just like mama. She loved children too.”
‘I figure the state didn’t want me to have no kids because I was mean. That was the only thing I could figure.’—Lynch
These days, Lynch visits a nephew who lives nearby but doesn’t see other family members often. He misses his mother, whom he doted on, taking her to dinner on Friday nights and church on Sunday mornings.
Lynch is one of 220 victims of the North Carolina eugenics program who received compensation ($20,000) from the state legislature last year. He and other victims, including Riddick, are waiting on the remaining $30,000 promised.
Both Riddick and Lynch say it isn’t about the money but the recognition of wrongdoing by the state. North Carolina officials have apologized for the ghoulish treatment revealed in eugenics board records.
In some cases, victims knew about their sterilization order and begged the eugenics board to relent. One woman pleaded in 1945: “I don’t want it. I don’t approve of it, sir. I don’t want a sterilization operation. … Let me go home, see if I get along alright. Have mercy on me and let me do that.”
The Winston-Salem Journal reported the North Carolina eugenics board approved 90 percent of cases, and decided most of them in less than 15 minutes.
Riddick discovered her eugenics records diagnosed her as feebleminded and promiscuous and recommended sterilization at age 13: “This will at least prevent additional children from being born to this child who cannot care for herself, and can never function in any way as a parent.”
These days, Riddick uses her experience as a parent to promote pro-life causes and legislation across the country. She’s close to her only son, Tony, and her 10-year-old grandson, and says she’s glad eugenics officials couldn’t order abortion in the 1960s. (The North Carolina eugenics program ended in 1977, four years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. Other eugenics programs lost some support after Hitler’s eugenicist-driven holocaust in World War II, but they still managed to continue in some form for decades.)
Riddick recently testified before the South Carolina state legislature in favor of a 20-week abortion ban: “My son was conceived in rape, and he had the right to live.”
PLANNED PARENTHOOD officials reject comparisons between eugenics and the 300,000 abortions their centers perform each year. But similarities abound: Abortions disproportionately occur among minorities and the poor, and babies with genetic defects like Down syndrome are singled out for extermination in significant numbers.
(On Aug. 27, a group of black pastors and pro-life activists gathered in front of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to ask museum curators to remove a bust of Margaret Sanger from the National Portrait Gallery, calling her views “racist and genocidal.”)
Mothers do consent to abortions, but much like eugenics programs of the past, leading scientists, doctors, and politicians still approve of a practice that eliminates the unwanted. John West of the Discovery Institute (who writes about eugenics in his book Darwin Day in America) says the recent videos released by CMP also show connections with eugenics campaigns of the past.
He notes the dehumanizing rhetoric used by Planned Parenthood workers and officials from the fetal tissue procurement company StemExpress to describe unborn children, and says: “That was the same sort of rhetoric used to target people for forced sterilizations.”
Much like Margaret Sanger referred to lower classes as “human waste,” StemExpress CEO Cate Dyer referred to aborted babies as “waste products.”
Steven Mosher of the pro-life Population Research Institute says he hopes the graphic videos will revolt viewers with the reality of what happens when abortionists eliminate unborn children. Mosher learned the reality when he witnessed late-term abortions in China while studying the country’s one-child policy in 1981. The experience transformed him into a pro-life advocate and led to his Christian conversion. The sight of abortion produced an effect numbers can’t convey, he said: “I saw hell open up.”
Mosher hopes the grisly images in the CMP videos also lead many to embrace the reality of man as created in the image of God, instead of the theory of man as organic material evolved from animals. “There are only two views of man,” said Mosher. “One is that we are a little lower than the angels. The other is that we are a little higher than the apes. I’m firmly on the side of the angels.”
Listen to Jamie Dean discuss “Unwanted” on The World and Everything in It.