FORMER VIRGINIA governor Mark R. Warner (D), now a U.S. senator, took a bold step in 2002 when he became the nation’s first governor to apologize formally for the state’s unspeakably cruel, half-century-long program of forced sterilizations — surgical procedures that deprived as many as 8,000 people of the ability to conceive children. Unfortunately, Virginia, which sterilized more of its citizens than any state but California, then dropped the ball, failing to follow up by making significant reparations or even trying to locate and alert surviving victims.
The victims in Virginia, as with nearly 60,000 others in 31 other states, were men, women, black and white, all deemed by the state as genetically deficient in some way — mentally ill, epileptic or “feebleminded,” in the parlance of the 1920s and ’30s, when the program was at full throttle. In many cases, the men and boys who underwent castrations or vasectomies, and the women and girls whose fallopian tubes or ovaries were removed, were not aware of what had been done to them, let alone the consequences of procedures carried out without their consent — all in the pseudo-scientific cause of enhancing the nation’s genetic stock.
Two years ago, North Carolina blazed a trail toward justice by establishing a $10 million fund to find and compensate surviving victims, all of them now elderly, each of whom would receive about $50,000. State officials estimated at the time that only some 200 victims could be found.
Virginia’s program of eugenics, as the effort was known, was roughly on the scale of North Carolina’s, and the number of surviving victims may be comparable. The trouble is that no one knows how many there may be, since the state has made no effort to identify them — no research, no marketing, no public service announcements. No governor, including the incumbent, Terry McAuliffe (D), has offered to meet with surviving victims.
After years of inaction, the General Assembly this year authorized payment of $400,000 to surviving victims, at a rate of $25,000 each (half the amount North Carolina is paying). That comes to compensation for just 16 individuals, an initiative so paltry that it fails at even symbolically righting the wrong. There is vague talk of a museum to memorialize the victims, and lawmakers may appropriate more money next year, but a sense of urgency is lacking.
Tracking down victims of a program that began in the 1920s and was not formally ended until 1979 requires research into records kept by five state hospitals where the surgeries were performed, an undertaking estimated to cost about $1 million. Yet not a dime has been authorized for that by the legislature, and volunteers who might do the work on their own are barred from doing so by privacy laws.
The specific sum in reparations is less important than the effort made to find and recognize people deprived of one of the most fundamental human rights imaginable. Under Mr. Warner’s leadership, the state looked like a leader in this regard. As it turns out, it has been a laggard, thereby adding insult to incalculable injury.