A SHAMEFUL LITTLE SECRET

Elaine Riddick dreamed of motherhood. She and her husband tried to conceive for months without luck, so they consulted a doctor. The diagnosis was shocking: she had been sterilized four years earlier without her knowledge.

She soon learned that the operation had been performed by state order in North Carolina in 1968, when she was just 14, and had given birth to a baby after being raped. At the time, she'd assumed doctors were just performing a routine post-birth procedure. The sterilization-consent form had been signed by her neglectful father and her illiterate grandmother, who had marked her assent with an X. Today, three decades later, she's still reeling from the revelation she blames for the death of her marriage and her eventual hysterectomy. "I felt like I was nothing," says Riddick, her fists clenched in anger. "It's like, the people that did this, they took my spirit away from me."

Now North Carolina is pondering ways to make amends to Riddick and thousands of others sterilized as part of the eugenics (or "good breeding") movement that began nationally in the early 20th century and continued into the 1970s. The state offered a public apology two years ago. Now lawmakers are debating ways to make reparations to those robbed of the chance to be parents. More than 30 other states had eugenics programs during the last century; they were ruled constitutional in Buck v. Bell, a 1924 Supreme Court decision that is still the law of the land. Roughly 70,000 Americans in all were sterilized before the notion fell out of favor, becoming linked in the public's mind to Hitler's Germany after World War II. But North Carolina is the first to appoint a panel to study what to do now for its victims, from health care and counseling to financial reparations. The state is also considering addressing the shameful practice--finally halted in 1974--in its classrooms. "Some people have tried to pretend it never happened," says North Carolina State Rep. Larry Womble, a reparations activist. "It's painful to remember."

North Carolina's sterilization program zeroed in on welfare recipients. Over the last 15 years of its operation, 99 percent of the victims were women; more than 60 percent were black. The truth began to emerge after Johanna Schoen, author of "Choice and Coercion," a new book dealing with the subject, was given access to sealed records by a state employee. In some cases, the reasons for sterilization were as flimsy as being considered lazy or promiscuous. Nial Ramirez says she was sterilized at 18 after social workers threatened to cut off her mother's welfare benefits. "We had no way to fight back," says Ramirez, now 58.

Jacob Koomen served on the board that voted to sterilize Riddick. Decades later, he told Schoen that he was "uncomfortable" making such irrevocable decisions: "We did it because the law obligated us to. It isn't something we would have volunteered to do."

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley issued an apology to the victims in 2003, and ordered a commission to find concrete ways to make amends. But the state's budget is already a billion dollars in the red, and nothing has happened yet. To date, no one who underwent forced sterilization in this country has received assistance for it.

Some critics say North Carolina is stalling. But others say this state, at least, is trying to own up to its history, and that others should follow suit. (In December, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution calling for federal and state programs to identify victims nationwide and get them health care and counseling.) "We're in uncharted territory here," says Carmen Hooker Odom, the head of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. "We want to create a model other states can follow."

Riddick isn't holding her breath. "They're waiting for all of us to die out," she says. "Then the problem disappears." It's little surprise she has scant faith in a state that has done her, and so many others, so wrong. But at least now the ugly secret is out.