[Hpn] Wash. Post Article on Virginia Eugenics Bill

Thomas Cagle nh-adapt@juno.com
Sun, 04 Feb 2001 13:22:26 -0500


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19404-2001Feb2.html

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 
hereditary "defects."

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 
admirable.

"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, 
historians say.

"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 
were atrocious."

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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