[Hpn] Wash. Post Article on Virginia Eugenics Bill
Sun, 04 Feb 2001 13:22:26 -0500
VA House Voices Regret for Eugenics
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 3, 2001 ; Page A01
RICHMOND, Feb. 2 -- The House of Delegates voted
today to express regret for Virginia's policies of
selective breeding during the 20th century, including
the forced sterilization of 8,000 mostly poor,
uneducated men and women for supposed
The 85 to 10 vote came after some of the hundreds
of victims of Virginia's forced sterilizations spoke
out in television and newspaper reports spotlighting
the state's leading role in a movement called
eugenics. It sought to use government power to
breed away such chronic social problems as poverty,
immorality, crime, addiction and ignorance.
The resolution, which requires the approval of the
state Senate, would make Virginia the first among
the 30 states that once had forced sterilization laws
to formally express regret. The resolution passed
today would declare "profound regret over the
Commonwealth's role in the eugenics movement in
this country and the incalculable human damage
done in the name of eugenics."
It was a remarkable moment for a state whose
leaders prefer to talk about Virginia's role in helping
found the nation -- and lately, its high-tech dominance --
instead of its prominent role in such historic evils
as slavery, segregation and forced sterilizations.
Even today's resolution was changed to remove
the word "apology." Some House members,
including Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas), wanted
to go further and remove the passage expressing
regret, though he called the resolution's intentions
"We're offering regrets for something that was
done legally," Parrish said. "It's improper for us to
now second-guess the General Assembly then."
Virginia officials and academics had a leading role
in the American eugenics movement, which
paralleled the Nazi drive for a super race. The
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has requested
documents from Virginia as it prepares an exhibit in
2004 tentatively called "Nazi Race Science."
The eugenics movement began in the United States at
the beginning of the 20th century. Indiana passed the
nation's first sterilization law based on eugenics in 1907.
Over the next seven decades, government hospitals
sterilized 60,000 men and women. Only California,
with 20,000 sterilizations, had more than Virginia.
Virginia passed its Eugenical Sterilization Act in
1924 -- which targeted "socially inadequate
offspring" -- on the same day it passed the Racial
Integrity Act prohibiting marriage between whites
and nonwhites. Both grew out of eugenicists' drive
for what they deemed a superior stock of humans.
"Virginia eugenicists saw themselves as the
vanguard of the future," said Gregory M. Dorr, a
University of Alabama historian who studied
Virginia's role in the eugenics movement.
More than half of Virginia's sterilizations happened
at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the
Feebleminded in Lynchburg, though others happened
at hospitals in Petersburg, Staunton, Williamsburg
and Marion. Most victims were white, but some
African Americans and Indians also were sterilized,
"People were sterilized not because they were
feebleminded, but because they were 'poor
white trash,' " said Steven Selden, a University
of Maryland professor who wrote a book on
eugenics that was published last year.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld forced sterilization
at the Lynchburg facility in a case involving a
woman named Carrie Buck, who had become
pregnant as a teenager. In allowing her sterilization
in 1927, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
assessed Buck, her mother and her daughter, then
declared, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
A surge of sterilizations followed nationwide,
tapering off when Nazi brutality in World War II
turned public opinion against eugenics.
"The Nazis took great comfort from the eugenics
movement in America," said Paul A. Lombardo,
a University of Virginia historian.
Forced sterilizations continued on a very limited
basis in Virginia until 1979. Today's resolution calls
on society to "reject absolutely any such abhorrent
pseudo-scientific movement in the future."
State lawmakers urged particular vigilance at a
time when scientists are decoding the human
genome and making possible far more profound
manipulation of genetic traits than envisioned by
eugenicists during the last century.
"We're tampering with DNA, with genes. And
scientifically we're greatly advanced, but morally we
have a problem," warned Del. Mitchell Van Yahres
(D-Charlottesville), the resolution's sponsor.
"We don't want to go down that road again."
A key supporter of House Resolution 607 was the
chamber's top Republican, Speaker S. Vance
Wilkins Jr., a veteran lawmaker from the small town
of Amherst, just north of Lynchburg. He helped the
resolution get past a reluctant committee this week.
"It's the right thing to do," said Wilkins before
today's session. "They're facts of history . . . and we
shouldn't try to cover them up."
Claude A. Allen, Virginia's secretary of health and
human resources, said Gov. James S. Gilmore III's
administration had taken no position on the
eugenics resolution and is seeking a legal opinion
on the threat of civil liability for the state before
taking a stand. He said forced sterilizations "clearly
One Virginia victim of sterilization was Jesse Meadows.
He was sent to the Lynchburg colony in 1940 after his
mother died and his father remarried. Meadows was
just 17. More than 60 years later, he can remember
the names and faces of the two doctors and the nurse
who performed a vasectomy against his will.
Meadows married after leaving the facility and made
a living as a house painter, but he could never have
children. Now 78, he lives alone in Lynchburg, in the
same neighborhood as several others who were
sterilized at the colony there.
"They ought to apologize for doing something like
that, treating them like animals," Meadows said.
"They ruined a lot of people's lives."
© 2001 The Washington Post
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