Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
Eugenics: Further Reading

Eugenics: Breeding for the "Public Good"


Formed in 1933, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina prevented the “unfit” from having children. The Board reviewed cases of the mentally diseased, feeble-minded, and epileptics for sterilization. An individual’s mental, moral, or physical health determined the approved order of sterilization. Advocates of the program justified this as a way to protect the best interest of the individual along with the public good. But many of those sterilizations violated the law, targeted blacks, and were performed over the objections of parents.

North Carolina was not alone in the decision to sterilize its residents.


According to the Human Betterment Foundation in California, eugenic sterilization represented one of the greatest advances in modern civilization. Its publication, Human Sterilization Today (1938), claimed that “more than 130,000,000 people, including the citizens of twenty-nine American states, are now living under eugenic sterilization laws.”

It goes on to contend that sterilization laws grew as a solution to a number of costly problems. These included the high birth rates among families habitually living on public charity. Children from feeble-minded families raised in state homes were multiplying at twice the rate of the population in California. And the care of the mentally diseased and defective heavily burdened the taxpayer.

The adoption of compulsory sterilization was legitimized by the United States Supreme Court in Buck vs. Bell (1927). The ruling, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., supported that a state’s interest in a “pure” gene pool outweighed the interest of the individual. Holmes concluded his argument by stating that, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”


In Diane Chamberlain’s fictional novel, “Necessary Lies,” the story brings to light the subject of North Carolina’s state-sponsored eugenics program. Jane, a young newlywed, begins her first job as a social worker. One of her cases involves the Hart family that consists of grandmother, Nonnie, who suffers from poor health, 17-year-old intellectually-disabled Mary Ella, and 15-year-old Ivy. Mary Ella gave birth to an illegitimate son, after which she was sterilized as part of the eugenics program. Jane is pressured to also submit Ivy for the sterilization program. But Jane is unsure that this is the right thing to do.

One of the real-life eugenics stories involves Elaine Riddick Jessie (born Elaine Riddick). In 1968, when Jessie was 14 years old, she was sterilized under the authority of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board because she was “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous.”

Prior to her sterilization, Jessie had been kidnapped and raped. The family’s social worker, Marion Payne, discovered Jessie’s pregnancy and pressured her illiterate grandmother, Maggie Woodward, into signing a consent for sterilization. Payne threatened Woodward that her granddaughter would be sent to an orphanage if she didn’t sign. Five of Jessie’s siblings had already been sent to an orphanage.

Without Jessie’s knowledge or consent, the procedure was performed just hours after she gave birth to her son.

In 2003, N.C. Governor Mike Easley signed a law repealing forced sterilizations in North Carolina. He formally apologized for the sterilization of more than 7,600 people under the state’s eugenics program that lasted from 1929 to 1974. More than 60 percent of those sterilized were black and 99 percent were females. And in 2013, N.C. lawmakers voted to hand out $10 million in compensation to involuntary sterilization victims.

Read More about Eugenics

“Against Their Will,” a five-part series by Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, and John Railey. Winston-Salem Journal. Winston-Salem Journal, 9 Dec. 2002.

“North Carolina's Shocking History of Sterilization” by Belle Boggs. Salon Media Group, 11 Aug. 2013.

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I couldn't put this book down. Through the characters, I thought that the author did a great job of making the seemingly black and white topic of eugenics much more gray and interesting.


I really disliked reading this book because it was so upsetting to me, but I would hope that the case of Eileen cited above was an extreme case. I'm sure at that time, a woman with several children to take care of and no easy access to contraceptives may welcome eugenics. But to sterilize a 14-year-old for being "promiscuous" is horrible. The issues surrounding teen pregnancy and welfare dependence certainly haven't gone away, but I assume the introduction of oral contraceptives helped to stop these eugenics programs.

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