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Washington Post: Victims of forced sterilization deserve a gesture of justice from Virginia Print

BY:  EDITORIAL BOARD

Created:  Thursday, February 18, 2016 7:18PM

 

NORTH CAROLINA set a bold example of justice in 2013 by establishing a $10 million fund to locate and compensate surviving victims of the state’s barbaric, decades-long program of forced sterilization. Now Virginia, which ran a similarly aggressive campaign to deprive as many as 8,000 mentally ill, epileptic or otherwise “feebleminded” citizens of the ability to conceive children, has an opportunity to follow suit. It should.

The financial stakes are modest — no more than a couple hundred of the state’s victims are likely still alive — but the principle is not. After years of foot-dragging, will Virginia lawmakers do the right thing by compensating victims for the unspeakable harm inflicted on them by the state?

The state’s campaign was carried out in the pseudoscientific cause of “eugenics” — purifying and enhancing the nation’s genetic stock by forced sterilization, often without informing the victims of the consequences before surgical procedures took place.

Last year, Richmond recognized that, despite then-Gov. Mark R. Warner’s (D) apology for eugenics in 2002, refusing to atone by providing compensation was no longer morally defensible. It authorized payment of $400,000 to survivors who had been castrated or vasectomized, in the case of men and boys (most of them black), or had their ovaries or fallopian tubes removed, in the case of women and girls.

That was a good start, but little more than a symbolic one. At $25,000 per victim — half of what North Carolina allocated — the amount approved by the General Assembly provided compensation to just 16 survivors. And unlike North Carolina, which undertook a systematic effort to track down victims of the half-century-long eugenics campaign, Virginia has so far done next to nothing, beyond establishing a website, to identify and locate those upon whom such cruelty was visited.

 In an effort to set those wrongs partially right, Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who is among the few lawmakers in Richmond to have taken up the victims’ cause, has proposed an amendment to add $800,000 in funds to compensate an additional 32 victims, plus $80,000 to cover the salary of a single state official who, using hospital records and outreach efforts, would identify and find those deserving compensation.

Compensation can’t make up for the deprivation of the right to reproduce, perhaps the most fundamental human right of all, with no due process or informed consent. But as a symbolic gesture, it is the right thing to do. The sum of money at stake is a pittance in the context of Virginia’s budget. The real question is decency, and whether Virginia’s stores of it are sufficient to make a meaningful gesture of justice to atone for an unconscionable crime.


 



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