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VA comes close to apology for sterilizations

by Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
February 5, 2001

This article is reproduced here under special arrangement with Inclusion Daily Express Email News Service.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA--Without coming right out and apologizing, the Virginia House of Delegates on Friday passed a proclamation expressing "regret" for the forced sterilization of thousands of Virginians with disabilities during much of the last century.

"It's the right thing to do," said Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., before the vote.

The proclamation was originally written to be a formal apology, but some lawmakers, nervous that an apology would open the state up to expensive lawsuits, pushed to have it changed to an "expression of regret". It is the closest any state has come to acknowledging these atrocities it inflicted on its citizens with disabilities.

The Virginia Senate has yet to meet to vote on the measure.

During the 1920s, the number of people with disabilities being sent to institutions grew at rapid rate. The cost of caring for people in those institutions also increased rapidly. Tax-payers became upset about having to pay so much to institutionalize people.

One solution: Operate on the people in the institutions so they will not be able to have children who, many believed at the time, would likely have children with disabilities, who would be institutionalized at tax-payer expense, and so on. In 1924, the Virginia General Assembly adopted a Eugenical Sterilization Act as a way to "relieve the financial burden" on tax-payers. The law was also designed to protect doctors so they could not be sued for malpractice.

That sterilization law opened the door to an estimated 8,300 people being routinely sterilized in Virginia between 1924 and 1979. It was based on a model law written by Harry Laughlin, a leader in what was called the American Eugenics Movement.

Eugenics was established on what was a popular belief at the time, that society in general, and the "white race" in particular, could be "purified" through selective breeding. It is known that Adolph Hitler used the same model law to justify "purifying" his "master race" by ordering sterilizations of thousands of people deemed "socially defective", many -- but not all -- with disabilities.

During the height of the American Eugenics Movement, 30 of the United States, two Canadian Provinces, and a large number of other nations had sterilization laws on the books. In the United States alone, over 60,000 men, women and children are documented to have been sterilized against their will. Most lived in institutions housing people with developmental disabilities. It is not known how many sterilizations were not documented.

Here are more resources on eugenics:

Resources on this web page from Marmoset Media suggests that eugenics is as strong as it has ever been, but now exists in the form of genetics screening and selective abortion: http://www.marmoset.com/60minute/Webnav/eugen.html

For information on the American Eugenics Movement, and specifically Virginia's Eugenics laws, visit the historical archives hosted by the DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Click on the essay entitled "Sterilization Laws": http://vector.cshl.org/eugenics

Nearly half of those Virginians who were involuntarily sterilized lived at what was called the "State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded". This was the name given to the institution now known as Central Virginia Training Center (which was featured in a story last Friday). Doctors at CVTC officially sterilized thousands of people between 1927 and 1956, although it is suggested that the practice continued there through 1972.

CVTC is still the largest institution in Virginia, housing 650 people with mental retardation. Forced sterilizations at the facility are mentioned briefly on the "History" page of the CVTC website: http://www.cvtc.state.va.us

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