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Lynchburg News & Advance: Sterilized by the State, Then Ignored, Forgotten Print


Created:  Sunday, February 9, 2014  6:00AM

Lewis Reynolds, 86, served America for 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, putting his life on the line defending freedom and liberty. Yet the most grievous wounds he has suffered in his long life didn't come at the hands of this nation's enemies, rather from his own country.

As a child ... a child ... he was forcibly sterilized by doctors at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Madison Heights. Why? Because of an incorrect medical diagnosis.

On Thursday, he told his story to a subcommittee of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee, testifying for House Bill 74, proposed legislation to compensate eugenics victims.

And the eight legislators on the General Government and Capital Outlay panel then proceeded to kill a bill designed to give Virginia's eugenics victims a meager compensation for destroying their lives because they worried how the state's bottom line might be impacted.

That legislation would establish a $10 million fund from which eugenics victims would receive $50,000 in compensation and has brought together politicians who are polar opposites on many other issues. Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, is known as one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly; chief co-sponsor Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, is as far to the left as Marshall is to the right. The same goes for the bill's two co-patrons: Dels. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, and Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church.

For them, it's a moral issue, a chance to right a wrong that government inflicted on its weakest citizens over the course of decades.

For their opponents, it's simply a matter of money.

Marshall, the bill's main sponsor, says legislation isn't dead. He plans to resurrect it on the floor of the House as an amendment to the state's overall budget later in the session.

We wish him and his co-sponsors luck.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, for decades, sterilized hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Virginians deemed "unsuitable for breeding." People who suffered from epilepsy. The mentally disabled. People of "questionable morals." The "feebleminded."

It was all part of the state's eugenics program, enacted in the 1920s, declared constitutional in 1927 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (a case that originated at what is now Central Virginia Training Center) and only formally ended in 1979. One of the admirers of the commonwealth's eugenics laws was none other than Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler.

It took another 23 years before Virginia, at the prodding of then-Gov. Mark Warner, formally apologized to those sterilized by the state.

To be fair, Virginia wasn't the only state busily sterilizing its "undesirable" citizens. Our neighbors to the south in North Carolina had a similarly evil program that was even more "efficient" than ours.

But North Carolina has both apologized and compensated its victims. Its leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, realized that saying "We're sorry" is cold comfort to those people the state harmed, that monetary compensation — for good or for ill — is how our society says it's serious.

Mark Bold, who's been pushing this issue since his days as a law student at Liberty University, put it bluntly Thursday: "It's not about the money, it's about recognition" for the survivors.

The federal government rightly compensated Japanese-Americans interred in concentration camps during World War II. North Carolina rightly compensated its citizens forcibly sterilized by the government.

Virginia's refusal to do so is simply morally wrong. Step up, and do what is right.

It's time, Virginia, to do what is right by these people we've harmed.