E. Lewis Reynolds was just a boy when his cousin hit him in the head with a rock, nearly killing him and triggering epileptic-like convulsions that lingered for some years.
His condition didn’t stop him from enlisting in the Marine Corps or serving his country in Korea and Vietnam during a 30-year military career.
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.”
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” he wrote.
More than half of the sterilizations in Virginia occurred at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded in Lynchburg, but state hospitals in Petersburg, Staunton, Williamsburg and Marion also performed them. Males were given vasectomies; females underwent salpingectomies to remove part of the fallopian tubes.
Most victims were white, but some African Americans and Indians were sterilized. The last two people sterilized under the law had the surgery in 1979, according to state records obtained by Marshall.
In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution of regret for the selective-breeding policies, and then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) offered a formal apology the next year.
No state has provided compensation. Last year, the governor of North Carolina urged that the state appropriate $10 million to compensate victims of forced sterilization. The state’s House passed a measure that did not clear the Senate. The legislature is debating compensation again this year.
“We tend to think this is a Nazi policy. They got it from us,” said Mark C. Bold, executive director of the Christian Law Institute, which is advocating for the victims. “That’s why we’re suggesting Virginia take the lead.”
Bold said it was immoral to deny compensation to the victims or to delay paying them for much longer. “That’s why they wanted to get rid of them before, because they were on the public dole,” Bold said. “I think they’re hoping they’ll die off.”
To Marshall, a longtime and prominent abortion foe, the eugenics law is an example of the peril of social engineering by big government. But Hope noted that an example of recent legislation that specifies a medical procedure is last year’s law requiring women to have ultrasounds before an abortion.
Their legislation would cap compensation at $50,000 per person, to be paid with surplus funds. The bill’s provisions would expire July 1, 2018. The state would have no obligation to locate victims, who would have to come forward on their own.
Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said he was sympathetic to the victims but that the fiscal impact could be huge.
Legislative analysts with Virginia’s Department of Planning and Budget issued a fiscal impact statement estimating that Virginia sterilized 7,325 people between 1924 and 1979, when the law was repealed. The analysts — citing a University of Vermont study and a 2012 report by a North Carolina task force — estimated that 1,465 Virginia victims could be alive. Compensation could cost nearly $73.3 million, the analysts concluded.
Hope and Marshall, however, say the numbers would be much smaller, because most of Virginia’s sterilizations took place in the 1930s and ’40s. They estimate that only a few hundred victims are still alive. Hope dismissed concerns that the measure could set a precedent for reparations for slavery or other injustices.
“The big difference is, these people are still alive,” Hope said. “To hear their stories just brings tears to your eyes.”
Reynolds said he didn’t know he had been sterilized until a military doctor advised him that that was the reason Reynolds and his first wife could not have children.
“I cried about it because I couldn’t have no children,” Reynolds, 85, said in an interview at Marshall’s office.
Reynolds said his first wife did not want to adopt children and the inability to have children contributed to their divorce. His second wife also did not want to adopt, he said, and now he finds himself alone. He said the sight of a pregnant woman still upsets him, sometimes by reminding him of what he and his wife could never have.
“I just feel they took my life away from me,” he said.