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Pilot Online: Making overdue amends Print

Created:  Tuesday, February 17, 2015


The passage of time has a way of diminishing public outrage about all but the most egregious public policy failures. Virginia's Eugenical Sterilization Act is one of those. The 1924 law led to the forced sterilization of thousands, enduring as a horrifying and unforgettable abuse of power for which the commonwealth never has fully made amends.

It should.

Members of the House of Delegates have designated in their budget proposal $400,000 for compensation to people forcibly denied the ability to have children because state government deemed them unfit.

The compensation, according to the proposed language, would be distributed as a one-time, $25,000 payment. It represents half the $50,000 award sought by Dels. Patrick Hope, a Democrat from Arlington, and Bob Marshall, a Republican from Manassas, who have worked together for several years to request the funds.

No sum, of course, is sufficient to compensate for a government that presumes the moral authority to compel a human to undergo a medical procedure that strips away his or her ability to procreate.

However inadequate, the provision embedded in the House's budget is meaningful, and it deserves approval. "This is a way to close a repugnant chapter in the history of the commonwealth," Hope said.

Under Virginia's law, more than 7,000 people were forcibly sterilized, the majority of them during the 1930s and 1940s. The act was adopted as part of a larger movement sweeping the nation during the early part of the 20th century, and it was upheld in a landmark case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That case was brought on behalf of a single teenage mother from Charlottesville, whose sterilization was justified by authorities who cited her mother's stay at a mental institution and an assessment of the plaintiff's infant daughter as "not quite normal."

Virginians with mental or physical disabilities, or who were young and poor or ran away from home, qualified for sterilization in the eyes of the state.

Over time, and as its horrors became more widely known, the practice fell out of favor. Virginia lawmakers disowned the twisted social and financial arguments used to support the law and repealed it in 1979. In 2002, then-Gov. Mark Warner issued a public apology on behalf of the state, describing eugenics as "a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved."

Acknowledging that terrible record, however, goes only so far. The actions of Virginia's government in those years irreparably altered the course of thousands of lives. Those actions were taken - regrettably - on behalf of all Virginians, a discomfiting fact that demands a collective act of penance.

Two years ago, North Carolina lead the way, approving a compensation plan for victims of its program.

As Virginia's victims have waited, their ranks have dwindled. State officials estimate about 320 might be eligible to pursue payment. Thirteen have been identified and vetted, but in the past year, Hope said, two of those have died.

In a year when lawmakers have crowed about state tax revenue exceeding projections, about surplus cash for building projects and pay raises, it would be a terrible failure not to finally begin compensating those Virginians who were emotionally and physically harmed, in the worst imaginable way, by their government.

State senators - and Gov. Terry McAuliffe - would do well to support the proposal.