Motherhood Denied: The Dark Legacy Of North Carolina’s Eugenics Law, Through the Eyes of a Black Mom

I’ve made no secret about my support for a woman’s right to choose—been very clear that I firmly believe it is solely a woman’s decision to settle on when and if she’s ready to hand over her body to pregnancy and her life to motherhood. So there’s no confusion, let me make it absolutely crystal: I am against abortion for me. But that is my choice. If another woman has different beliefs that lead her to a different decision for herself, well, that’s her business. Her right. Her choice.

My support of choice extends, too, to a woman’s right to bear babies, no matter what anyone else has to say about her decision, the timing, or her marital and financial status. I point this out because when it comes to women of color and our reproductive choices, someone seems to always talk sideways about why, how and when black and Latina women should and do become moms. You know how it goes: we’re promiscuous. Irresponsible. A drain on the system. Incapable of thoughtful parenting. Perpetually damned if we don’t, and damned if we do.

I’ve been thinking about reproductive choice a lot of late—because of sustained attacks against Planned Parenthood. Because of Mississippi’s Personhood Initiative, which would have criminalized in-vitro fertilization and birth control methods and outlawed abortion in the state, even in cases of rape, incest, domestic violence and life-threatening pregnancy. And especially because of a story I saw earlier this week on Rock Center with Brian Williams, about one woman’s fight to have the state of North Carolina pay for sanctioning her sterilization. A victim of rape, Elaine Riddick became pregnant at the tender age of 13; around the time that she gave birth to her son in 1967, a five-person state eugenics* board agreed with her doctor that Elaine was “feebleminded” and “promiscuous” and, under a state law that gave them the right, that board approved a recommendation that her tubes be tied so that she could no longer procreate. Riddick didn’t find out until she was 19, married and desperate to have more children with her husband that she couldn’t have any more babies. Her new doctor told her she’d been “butchered.”

“I was raped by a perpetrator [who was never charged] and then I was raped by the state of North Carolina. They took something from me both times,” she said. “The state of North Carolina, they took something so dearly from me, something that was God given.”

States all across the country had laws that allowed for this barbaric assault, used first against poor whites and, later, primarily against blacks, the poor and women. The Rock Center report says that North Carolina had its law on the books straight through until 2003. Yes, you read that right: 2003.

You can read more about Elaine’s story here at the online home of Rock Center With Brian Williams. Or, if you have the time, you can watch the report in its entirety below. I strongly encourage the latter. Elaine’s choice—her God-given reproductive right—to have babies was snatched away from her. This is what happens when we let laws decide what should happen to our bodies rather than allowing these deeply personal choices to remain just that—personal.

Marinate on that as you watch this woman’s painful story. And if this is the quality journalism and storytelling I can expect from Rock Center with Brian Williams, they have a huge fan. I’ll be tuning in regularly for sure.

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*Yes, I am fully aware of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s stance on eugenics and our community’s disgust with her over it, but I remain steadfast in my support of the modern version of the organization, which I truly believe is doing an amazing job providing reproductive education and services to women and families who can’t find or afford to get it elsewhere. And no, I have no interest in arguing with anyone about this; you have the right to your opinion and I have the right to mine and engaging in comment-to-comment combat about whether abortion is right or wrong will not change my mind or yours. If you insist on stating the case against abortion, please be respectful and brief, but I’d love it if we could stay on topic and discuss Elaine’s story.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I TA a biomedical ethics course and we typically draw from real life cases to study the importance/history of clinical trials, eugenics, etc, etc. There are many horrific stories similar to Elaine’s that took place in the jails (some of our most vulnerable population, if you haven’t read “Acres of Skin” I thoroughly recommend it), mental institutions and foster care. Elaine’s story reminded me that these “experiments” are still going on today and no matter how you feel about abortion policy or women’s rights the important thing to remember is Respect for Persons—people’s rights should be protected regardless of personal opinion. The NC eugenics law is a direct violation of that principle but it’s still hard to get many in the population to have compassion for those that are different from them (women, poor, black, latino, etc etc).
    We presented this to our class after Brian Williams’ report and again there was about 60% of the class that argued for NC’s policy based on “overwhelming number of young repeat offenders” (repeat offender I found out meant mothers with more than 3 children!!!!), “overpopulation” and “strain on the government—government assistance and the effects of drug addicted children on society”.
    I quote those so you know that these are direct things 20-23 years old are saying. To say we (the prof and myself) were shocked is an understatement! It’s always so easy to treat those the most different from us, well, different. (and this was a class of predominantly male white students, with about 10% ethnic minorities and 20% women)
    Pray for ’em!!!!!

  2. This is a horrible story to hear. I’m from NC…the state definitely still has some ancient laws on the books even today. My heart ached for the woman featured in the video. It definitely makes me wonder if this happened to anyone in my family or anyone I know. So sad.

  3. Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic blog.Really looking forward to read more. Will read on…

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