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Lynchburg The News & Advance: Lawmakers plan bill to compensate sterilization victims Print


Created: Thursday, November 29, 2012 12:02 am


Four people who were sterilized at the Central Virginia Training Center were guests Wednesday at the reenactment of a Supreme Court decision that legalized what was done to them just a few miles from Lynchburg in the 1930s.

After the event in Liberty University's model Supreme Court room, one of Virginia's staunchest conservative lawmakers, Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, said he will sponsor legislation to provide $50,000 compensation to each sterilization victim.

"There can't be many of these people left," Marshall said. Nearly 8,000 were sterilized between 1927 and 1971.

Marshall told an audience of about 100 that he will join Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, with a General Assembly bill in January to "secure some sense of rough justice for our fellow Virginians as best we can at this late date."

Marshall said he will ask for the funds to be appropriated from budget surpluses left at the end of each fiscal year, "so you can't have people who are blocking it say, 'we don't have the money.' "

Marshall added people in the audience should "buy stock in companies that make Valium, because when the Huffington Post and Republican leadership in the state find out that Patrick Hope and I are aligned on a social issue dealing with human sexuality, something is going to happen."

Hope backs prochoice positions on abortion, while Marshall is the General Assembly's most vigorous advocate of prolife legislation.

The sterilization victims in the room Wednesday were all Lynchburg-area residents: Lewis Reynolds, Sarah Wiley, and Anna Seal and Roy Seal, who are brother and sister.

Reynolds received two standing ovations when he spoke to the audience briefly about serving in the U.S. Marines for 30 years and two wars — after being sterilized at the training center when he was 13.

"I feel like when I was sterilized they took the right away from me ... to have a family," Reynolds said.

Marshall said the bill he's proposing will stand a good chance of approval in the General Assembly, "especially if that fellow comes up and testifies."

The offensive nature of Virginia's sterilization past is comparable to abortions being performed today, according to several members of the Liberty University Law School faculty and staff who played roles re-enacting the decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Just as some doctors argued in the 1920s that sterilization would solve problems for disabled people and society at large, other doctors argue today that abortions simplify lives for women and keep children from being born to a parent who can't give them proper care, several presenters said.

Holmes, in his decision, wrote that sterilization was justified because "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Law professor Rodney Chrisman, who portrayed Holmes, said in remarks afterward that the jurist's 30 years on the highest court led to his being given "virtual semi-divine status in American law."

"It's hard to overstate his impact," Chrisman said, but "quite frankly I find him to be a monster," because of comments Holmes wrote in letters to friends and associates.

"He thought the law was merely the power of the state, a profession made up of lawyers and judges and then a prediction about where that power would be used.

"He didn't believe in a higher law. He didn't believe in any real restraint on government power and certainly didn't believe in anything like the sanctity of human life."

There was one slight twist in the re-enactment: it was conducted as if the decision, known as Buck v. Bell, were being handed down in a Nazi Germany courtroom.

The presentation was part of a Liberty University lecture series called "Ideas Matter," based on the precept that many concepts can conceal evil purposes even when cloaked in moral-sounding arguments about what is best for individuals and society.

Germany's laws on eugenics, a now-discredited science intended to prevent disabled people from having children, were modeled from laws already on the books in Virginia and other states.

People in the audience weren't told the court's ruling, based on an out-of-wedlock birth and subsequent sterilization of a teenager named Carrie Buck, was actually a U.S. Supreme Court decision until the presentation ended.

Only a few in the audience expressed surprise.

Zachary Hicks, a graduate student in philosophy, said he didn't know about the Holmes ruling but he wasn't surprised, mostly because abortions are legal in the United States.

"We didn't get there overnight. That had to come from somewhere," he said.