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Pilot Online: Paying sterilization victims helps, but it can't undo what happened Print

BY:  ROGER CHESLSEY 

Created:  Saturday, February, 28, 2015 

 

State legislators finally approved a moral imperative this week, agreeing to pay victims of Virginia's notorious program of forced sterilizations.

The decision to allot the money through the state budget - $25,000 to each person still alive who suffered the operation - is long overdue, and credit must go to officials who refused to abandon the project. Major supporters include Republican Dels. Bob Marshall and Ben Cline and Democratic Del. Patrick Hope.

"We're excited," Mark Bold, executive director of the Christian Law Institute and a proponent of the awards, told me Friday, before a news conference in Richmond.

Hope, from Arlington County, added: "I'm very gratified we got to this point.... It's a recognition that what Virginia did was wrong."

Still, the compensation package feels inadequate, too.

Few known victims are still alive. There were years of inaction and silence by state officials. Previous attempts to approve the money failed. Legislators always found excuses to say no, and they focused more on the finances than righting a ghastly wrong.

The commonwealth involuntarily sterilized more than 7,000 Virginians from 1924 to 1979 under the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act. The now-discredited movement was supposed to improve the genetic composition of humans by "weeding out" reproduction by less-desirable members - the "feebleminded," mentally challenged and those who supposedly were sexually promiscuous. Many had parents who were reluctant to challenge authority figures.

Teenagers and others didn't realize what had been lost until they tried to become parents themselves.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia's law in 1927. It eventually became a model around the country - and even in Nazi Germany. Nationwide, 65,000 Americans were sterilized in 33 states, including more than 20,000 in California.

Virginia and North Carolina were next in line. North Carolina was very aggressive after World War II, at a time when other states were ending the surgeries.

The Tar Heel State, though, has taken the lead in compensation. It first established a study foundation, and then set up a process for victims to receive money through a $10 million fund.

The first checks went out in October. A North Carolina official said Friday that $4.4 million had been awarded to 220 people so far, and those individuals could receive more.

Virginia's program pales by comparison, though victims still alive in the commonwealth are far fewer than in North Carolina. The Virginia General Assembly budgeted $400,000 to compensate victims with $25,000 each. A spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe told me Friday, by email, his office won't make announcements on the budget bill until a review is finished.

Bold, of the law institute, said he's confirmed 13 people who were sterilized; two died in the past year.

One survivor is Lewis Reynolds, who's among the most publicized victims in Virginia. He told me Friday he's pleased the Assembly approved the program, though it can't undo what happened.

"What they done to me, (was) keep me from having a family and everything," the 87-year-old Lynchburg man said. "Everybody has children and grandchildren, too, and I would've liked that."

Reynolds served as a Marine in Korea and Vietnam in a decadeslong career. He taught FBI agents how to shoot.

But when he was 13, he was sterilized because he was presumed to have epilepsy after he'd been hit in the head with a rock. The symptoms, though, were temporary.

Reynolds' first wife left him after they couldn't have children, adding to his anguish.

The Assembly's decision Thursday will bring him some comfort.

Had lawmakers acted earlier, they could have helped more people who suffered by the state's hand.


 



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