In 1924, Virginia enacted a law allowing the forced sterilization of citizens who threatened the “purity of the American race.” Between 7,200 and 8,300 people were sterilized in the state because they were deemed unfit to procreate by reasons of mental insanity of mental deficiency. A bill, which would compensate those thousands of traumatized individuals, was defeated in the General Assembly on Feb. 10. While it’s unsurprising considering our country’s history of improperly atoning for our sins, it’s a gross injustice to our own citizens.
The U.S., like many other countries, has unfairly targeted and punished groups of people, usually based on their ethnicity or race. For example, during World War II we rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and sent them to internment camps. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered $20,000 to each victim. But considering this paltry compensation came 40 years after the fact, some victims had already passed away. And the paltry sum is shameful compared to the trauma of wrongful imprisonment.
Our very first steps on North American soil were followed by the genocide of Native Americans. They were given small parcels of land in a poor attempt to make up for their losses. As recently as 2012, the federal government gave $1 billion as repayment to tribes around the U.S. for loss of money in mismanaged accounts and from royalties for oil, gas, grazing and timber rights on tribal lands. These are issues that have been in discussion for more than a century.
Some may argue that the effort is there. That we are trying to make amends for our errors in judgment. It’s too little, too late in both of these national incidents and in the case of involuntarily sterilization. Why are we dragging our feet to make up for our wrongdoings?
The Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act stated that “heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, and crime.” This law gave the government permission to decide if a person was unfit or unworthy of procreation. It survived a constitutional review by the Supreme Court during Buck v. Bell in 1927, effectively allowing this abuse of power to continue until 1979. During this time, 22 percent of all of the individuals sterilized were African-American and about 62 percent were female.
An article in the Washington Post featured an interview with survivor E. Lewis Reynolds, who suffered from epilepsy after being hit with a rock as a child. Even in his condition he managed to serve in the military for 30 years, but was still classified as “defective” and subsequently sterilized.
House Bills 1504 and 2377, which are identical, would have provided some small justice to victims from this terrible time in our state’s history. Each claimant would receive a payment of up to $50,000. Despite bipartisan support, both bills were killed in committee.
In 2001, the General Assembly passed a resolution of regret and the following year, Mark Warner, who was governor at the time, issued a formal apology. If you were forcibly sterilized would you really care about a formal apology? How does that help victims?
We don’t want to set a bad precedent of retroactively providing payments to just any group of people who claims the government wronged them. However, not every group whose civil liberties have been violated is petitioning for compensation. This is an issue that was written into our state code. It tainted thousands of lives to a serious degree, of which we have record. We have statistics that back up the stories of people like Reynolds who may have wanted their lives to include children. It is not about punishing the state for something that happened years ago. It’s about consoling our own citizens when we have the ability to do something about it now.