Trials & Lawsuits

Sterilized by the State, a Woman Fights Back

UPDATED 08/18/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/18/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

Even three decades later, Elaine Jessie can feel the pain and till embarrassment. Unable to conceive a child with her husband and experiencing unusual bleeding, she had gone to her gynecologist in the summer of 1974 to find out what was wrong. After X-rays and an exam, the physician grew concerned. "He asked me if I had ever had my tubes tied," recalls Jessie, now 49. "I said no, and he said, 'Well, someone has done it to you.'"

Jessie would soon learn just who: During an earlier pregnancy, the state of North Carolina—without informing Jessie—had ordered a doctor to sterilize her when she went to the hospital to deliver her son. Following a controversial eugenics law designed to prevent people deemed unfit by the state from procreating, North Carolina had mandated more than 7,600 such sterilizations between 1929 and 1974, when the statute fell into disuse (see box). Outraged, Jessie went public with her story and pushed the state to overturn the law earlier this year. "She was courageous to speak up," says North Carolina state representative Larry Womble, sponsor of the bill enacting the change. "This is an example of society taking advantage of the poor, females and minorities."

Jessie was all of those things in 1967, when at age 13 she became pregnant by a man she identifies only as a married father in his 20s who had coerced her into a relationship. Just weeks before she was due to give birth, a county social worker visited the home of her grandmother, where Jessie was living after being abandoned by her father, whom she describes as an abusive alcoholic, and her mother, who once went to prison for beating him (both are now deceased). In a report that Jessie would see only years later, the social worker wrote, "[She] cannot care for herself and can never function in any way as a parent. Diagnosis: feebleminded."

The state, which required family approval for sterilization, secured signatures from Jessie's father and her grandmother, who was illiterate and signed with an X. When Jessie was placed under anesthesia to give birth to son Tony that March, a doctor severed her fallopian tubes. "They took away my right to have children," she says. "They had no idea what type of parent I would be."

At age 17, Jessie moved to New York City, where she married plumber Fitzray Trent and earned a G.E.D. and an associate's degree in human services. While her grandmother largely raised her son, Jessie moved to Georgia and ran a child-care center. "North Carolina told me I wouldn't be able to take care of children," she says, "and Georgia let me take care of 40."

Jessie had been married two years when her doctor informed her she had been sterilized. "I just flipped, I was so humiliated," she says. "Thinking I wasn't going to be able to have more children was devastating." Sent into a tailspin that led to a 1980 divorce, she filed a $1 million lawsuit against North Carolina in 1983, claiming the state had violated her constitutional rights. A jury sided with the state because she could not prove that officials acted with malicious intent, says her lawyer Ken Waxman.

Jessie moved on but never gave up on winning justice. Last year, when she heard a North Carolina newspaper was considering running a story on the history of eugenics, Jessie discussed going public with her son and decided to contact the paper. That got the attention of Larry Womble, the state legislator who agreed to help strike down the 74-year-old eugenics law. When Gov. Mike Easley officially abolished it last April 17, "I started to cry," Jessie says. The legislature is considering how to compensate her and other victims—with cash, counseling or health care.

For Jessie, however, the greatest consolation is her own son, Tony Riddick, 35, who owns 16 rental properties and a technology business. "I'm what I am today because of her," says Riddick. "I'm evidence that the state had no clue what it was talking about."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Steve Helling in Atlanta

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