By Steffanie Atkins
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – It is a shameful chapter in Virginia history: the forced sterilization of men and women deemed “feeble-minded” and “mentally unfit” from 1924 through 1979.
Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, hoped to provide reparations for victims of the state’s eugenics program when he filed House Bill 1529 in January.
The bill was assigned to the House Appropriations Committee. But the committee failed to act on the measure by the General Assembly’s Feb. 5 deadline, effectively killing it for this legislative session.
HB 1529, which Marshall called the “Justice for Victims of Sterilization Act,” would have allowed for payments of $50,000 to victims of the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924.
North Carolina is the only other state that has researched proposed reparations for sterilization victims. In connection with similar legislation there, North Carolina officials determined that about 20 percent of the people sterilized would be alive and possibly fewer would seek reparations.
However, reparations could have a bigger financial impact in Virginia. Virginia had the second highest sterilization count in the nation and sterilized many more individuals in the 1930s and 1940s than North Carolina.
Virginia officials estimate that HB 1529 would have cost $76 million over the next five years for the reparations, victim research and administrative fees. Virginia would have funded the program only if it had a state budget surplus.
The Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act lasted from 1924 through 1979. During this period, 7,325 Virginians were sterilized on grounds that they were “feeble-minded” or “mentally unfit” to have children.
Of the victims, 62 percent were women. Many of the individuals were held in state institutions, such as mental institutions, and sterilized as young as 13 years old.
Karen Rader, director of the Science, Technology and Society program at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that during this time period in Virginia, race mixing was of concern as well as fears over maintaining the integrity of the middle class.
“[There was] anxiety about what were considered worthless whites as opposed to well-appointed and economically productive whites and lazy rabble-rousers coming into the city,” Rader said.
The thought was that these individuals – the victims of sterilization – may have had negative effects on Richmond trying to modernize and move past the Civil War and Reconstruction.
In 2002, then-Gov. Mark Warner issued a formal apology to victims of the Sterilization Act.
“The eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved,” Warner said. “We must remember the commonwealth’s past mistakes in order to prevent them from reoccurring.”
This legislative session marks the 11-year anniversary of the apology. Marshall discussed the reparations bill at a press conference last month.
“Beginning in 1924, Virginia, to its disgrace, provided a model for Nazi eugenics sterilization statute. Now in the 21st century, we must seek to redress this as best we can,” he said.
“Many of the victims of this policy of involuntary sterilization are still alive and suffering the effects. Under eminent domain, government is required to compensate citizens for taking away property; how much more should it compensate for taking away the ability to have a family?”
Delegate Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, joined Marshall in sponsoring HB 1529.
“It’s now time to write the final chapter in this shameful and repugnant part of Virginia’s history,” Hope said. “What we’re asking for goes well-beyond just simple words of regret. We need to set an example and take full responsibility for our actions so that the healing process can finally begin.”
The bill would have established a eugenics museum at the Central Virginia Training Center, formerly known as the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble Minded. Rader said that would have been an educational tool and possibly an aid in identifying victims.
“Nothing that can be done in terms of reparations is ever going to actually pay an amount that’s going to compensate. At the same time, a symbolic gesture like this – combined with the willingness to say, ‘This happened; you are a part of history’ – I think could really be an interesting moment for this state,” Rader said.