LYNCHBURG, Va. — Growing national attention to the 20th-century practice of forcibly sterilizing thousands of Americans has put new pressure on Virginia lawmakers to compensate survivors.
A drumbeat from both the left and the right of the political spectrum has revived outrage over eugenics, a practice designed to create an American master race by preventing people with mental illness, developmental disabilities or epilepsy from having children. State officials estimate that Virginia sterilized 7,325 people under a 1924 state law that remained on the books until 1979.
Virginia has so far rejected paying reparations to people who were sterilized primarily because, opponents say, the state doesn’t have the money.
But neighboring North Carolina, which forcibly sterilized about 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974, passed a law earlier this year setting aside $10 million for reparations. As lawmakers prepare for the Virginia General Assembly’s annual legislative session next month, those who suffered because of the eugenics movement hope Virginia will follow North Carolina’s example.
In both states, the number of people sterilized and still living is unclear, but most of the procedures done in Virginia were carried out in the 1940s or earlier. Many of the people involved are elderly.
“That’s why I say time is short,” said Mark G. Bold, executive director of the Christian Law Institute, who has been trying to find and assist those affected by the eugenics law for the past three years while lobbying Virginia’s legislature.
During the 2013 legislative session, Bold worked with Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) and Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) — a pairing of one of the most conservative lawmakers with one of the most liberal — to seek compensation of $50,000 per person.
“We have a new governor and that makes me optimistic,” Hope said in an e-mail. “But as with anything that costs money, it will be a heavy lift in a tight budget environment.”
This time, Marshall said, they plan to ask for $10 million — the same as North Carolina, where people will be compensated based on how many come forward to split the proceeds. Payments would go out in June 2015.
“Virginia has a moral obligation to rectify this profound wrong,” Marshall said. “If you did a moral wrong, you have to do a moral right.”
Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe said through a spokesman that he supports the formal apology offered by Virginia for the “terrible practice of eugenics,” but he said only that he would “evaluate” any other legislation that passes in the coming months.
Opponents have expressed concern about the cost.
Virginia’s Department of Planning and Budget, in a fiscal impact statement filed with last session’s bill, estimated that 1,465 affected Virginians could be alive, and that compensating them could cost nearly $73.3 million.
Bold and Marshall think the numbers are far smaller because most of the sterilizations were done in the 1940s and earlier. Only about a dozen people have come forward, despite growing interest in the news media and the legislature since he started, Bold said.
Other opponents worry about the possible precedent that could be cited by others with grievances against the commonwealth, including those seeking reparations for slavery. Bold says that, unlike former slaves, the forcibly sterilized are still alive.
Bold also said that the surgical procedure, and the permanent inability to have children, represent only part of the suffering people endured.
Mary Shirkey, 64, who said she was institutionalized because of seizures and apparently because of a severe speech defect that hampered her schooling, recalled being sent to the “blind room” for violating the rules. There were no lights and no bathroom facilities in the room, where a patient might be locked up for hours.
“They put a lot of people in the blind room,” Shirkey said. “They kept you tied down and everything. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Bold was moved to action on behalf of Shirkey and others after reading Buck v. Bell, a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Virginia’s eugenics law, saying society’s right to sterilize people because of insanity or intellectual disability was similar to its right to mandate immunization against infectious diseases. Bold, who was then a law student at Liberty University, said the case shocked him, both because of its parallels to Nazi Germany’s eugenics policies and its relative obscurity in American history.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), on a campaign swing for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II (R) this fall, warned that abortion and scientific breakthroughs in genetics could revive America’s eugenics policies.
The Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act became law in March 1924 amid a widely held belief that the science of genetics would speed society’s progress through selective breeding. Thirty-three states, beginning with Indiana in 1907, enacted laws allowing compulsory sterilization of people deemed unfit to reproduce. An estimated 60,000 people nationwide were affected.
Virginia law, which declared that “ insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, and crime” could be influenced by heredity, allowed the compulsory sterilization of people confined to state institutions because of mental illness, mental disabilities or epilepsy. Males were given vasectomies; females underwent procedures called salpingectomies to remove part of the Fallopian tubes.
Joseph S. DeJarnette, superintendent of the Western State Hospital, told a General Assembly committee in 1934 that sterilizing as many as 12,000 Virginians could save the state millions of dollars.
“None of you would breed cattle except from good stock,” he was quoted by The Washington Post as saying. “Why not apply the same principle to human beings?”
When the Supreme Court upheld the practice in 1927 — in a brief opinion that includes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s remark that “three generations of imbeciles is enough” — acting U.S. Surgeon General Claude C. Pierce was pleased.
“The more unfit rendered sterile, the more rapid will be the development of a race of supermen in America,” he said.
Now, the forcibly sterilized — including E. Lewis Reynolds, who is 86 — are in a race against time.
Reynolds was admitted Aug. 21, 1941, to the Central Virginia Training Center because he suffered from convulsions. Seizures started after he was hit in the head with a rock as a child. The convulsions subsided for a time and resumed after a bout of whooping cough, forcing Reynolds to leave school when he was about 9.
Doctors at the center said sterilization would “take a big burden off him in the future,” according to his medical records.
Despite being barely able to read, Reynolds eventually joined the Marines. He retired after 30 years of service, including combat tours in Korea and Vietnam. Reynolds says he has missed having children.
“I’d like to see them do something for me, because I always wanted a family, too, just like anybody else,” Reynolds said in an interview. “All my brothers got family, and I got none.”