But it was enough to classify a teenager as a “defective person” and order his compulsory sterilization under an infamous 1924 Virginia law whose aim was to build a more perfect society.
The state has already offered a formal apology for a selective-breeding policy that led to the sterilization of hundreds of mostly poor, uneducated men and women and served as one of the models for eugenics programs in other states and even Nazi Germany.
Now Reynolds, 85, thinks it’s time that Virginia pay compensation, too, to him and perhaps hundreds of others.
Their cause has been taken up by an improbable alliance in Virginia’s House of Delegates — conservative Republican Robert G. Marshall (Prince William) and liberal Democrat Patrick A. Hope (Arlington) — who have sponsored a bill that would require the state to pay each victim $50,000.
“You have to do something to restore a person to wholeness,” Marshall said.
But the measure has met resistance from lawmakers who worry about average costs estimated at $14.7 million a year over five years and the possible precedent such a program would set for other aggrieved groups.
“My position is that it’s a laudable thing to do. [But] I’m not sure where this path stops,” said Del. John M. O’Bannon III (R-Henrico). “We’ve had many wrongs over the years. I’d like us to appreciate the bigger lessons — like science, the courts and the legislature are not always right.”
The bill, HB 1529, would benefit people sterilized under the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act. The law — which declared that “heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, and crime” — was signed March 20, 1924. It had the blessing of doctors and scientists at the University of Virginia and elsewhere. Under its provisions, people who were confined to state institutions because of mental illness, mental retardation or epilepsy could be sterilized as a “benefit both to themselves and society.”
By weeding out its weaker members through selective breeding, society would improve, according to the eugenics movement, which was popular then. In 1907, Indiana became the first of 33 states to enact laws allowing compulsory sterilization of people deemed to be unfit to reproduce, lest their offspring burden society. An estimated 60,000 people were sterilized nationwide by government decree over the years.
“Eugenics was some sort of policy that we could create a perfect race in America,” Hope said in an interview Wednesday. “Obviously, that was just a horrible thing, not to mention putting it in our own code.”
Only California, with 20,000 such operations, had more than Virginia, whose law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell in 1927. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority, said such measures were justifiable so that society would not be “swamped by incompetence.”