Hodges apologizes for S.C. sterilizations
1935 state law was aimed at preventing births of 'unfit' children

Staff Writer
Jan. 09, 2003

Gov. Jim Hodges Wednesday made the state's first apology for decades of forced sterilization that robbed more than 250 people of their ability to have children.

Advocates say the apology closes a sad chapter in South Carolina's history -- and helps people learn from past mistakes.

Liz Patterson, a former U.S. congresswoman who led the drive to repeal the sterilization law her father signed 50 years earlier while governor of South Carolina, said she appreciated Hodges' apology.

"It's part of our history," she said. "It shows we've made progress."

No one encouraged Hodges to make the apology, said spokeswoman Cortney Owings.

"Gov. Hodges felt it was time to issue an apology to the victims and their families," Owings said.

Hodges hopes the apology will educate South Carolinians about a time in history they may not be aware of and make them more accepting of their differences, Owings said.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, the state forcibly sterilized people -- mostly blacks and women -- to prevent them from bearing "unfit" children, records show.

The practice was signed into state law by Gov. Olin D. Johnston in 1935 and was guided through the Medical Affairs Committee by Strom Thurmond, who was a freshman senator. It remained on South Carolina's books until 1985. During that time, 30 states had similar sterilization laws.

The law authorized mental hospital and prison administrators to sterilize -- without the person's consent -- any man or woman diagnosed with "insanity, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy."

South Carolina's law was repealed in 1985.

Other states, including Virginia and Oregon, have issued similar apologies.

Advocates applaud Hodges for his apology. Some of them can recall a time when viewing people with disabilities as inferior was common.

Margaret Masse, former executive director of the S.C. Epilepsy Foundation, remembers when people like her child were referred to as "imbeciles" and weren't allowed to marry.

"It was so misunderstood," she said.

Though understanding is better now, Masse appreciates Hodges' apology and views it as a way to continue educating the public about epilepsy.

"It will make everyone more aware this is not a problem that should be shoved into the background," Masse said.

The idea of a forced sterilization law hits especially hard for Masse, the mother of a 41-year-old man with epilepsy.

"It makes me feel horrible that anything like that could happen to him," said Masse, whose son Damian does volunteer work every day.

Dave Almeida, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of South Carolina, calls Hodges' apology "a very important gesture," but says there's a lot of work to do to get rid of the stigma still associated with mental illness.

"At least we can hope that we've learned a valuable lesson: that people who suffer from mental illness are people who are just suffering from a disease like any other," he said.

As advances are made in genetic engineering and cloning, it's even more crucial to remember historical events like this one, said Dr. Donald Saunders, professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina's School of Medicine and former director of The Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities.

"We're in a situation now where we have much more power over reproductive medicine and genetics than ever before," Saunders said.

For example, the decision could be made to manipulate genes to produce a so-called "superior gene," and Saunders questioned who will make these decisions. History should help guide those future decisions.

"This should make us even more careful about what we do. We tend to keep making the same mistakes over and over again."