Eugenics Compensation Bill Offers Hope to Virginia Victims

Nora Sullivan, M.P.A  

When Virginian E. Lewis Reynolds was a child, he was hit on the head in a tragic accident that resulted in epileptic-like convulsions that lingered for years.  Mr. Reynolds ultimately did manage to overcome this affliction and he was able to enlist in the Marine Corps where he served in Korea and Vietnam in the course of a 30-year military career.

 

However, these convulsions were enough for the State of Virginia to classify Mr. Reynolds as a “defective person” when he was teenager and for the state to order that he be forcibly sterilized under the 1924 Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act without his consent or knowledge.

He did not learn that the procedure had been performed until he and his wife went to the doctor to find out why they could not conceive a child.   Now at the age of 85, Mr. Reynolds is alone in the world and one of the living victims of Virginia’s forced sterilization program who thinks it’s time for the state to recognize the great wrongs it has committed and compensate those citizens who were subjected to this awful abuse at the hands of the state.

 

Virginia’s forced eugenic sterilizations lasted from the passage of the Sterilization Act in 1924 until 1974- continuing longer than any other state.  An estimated 8,300 state sponsored forced or coerced sterilizations took place in Virginia during those years.  Virginia is outranked by only California, which forcibly sterilized an estimated 20,000 Californians, in terms of the number of compulsory or coerced sterilizations during this times period.

 

Virginia’s state sponsored forced sterilization program was given legal precedence and legitimacy as the result notorious 1927 Supreme Court case.  Buck v. Bell was a case centered on a seventeen-year-old Charlottesville girl called Carrie Buck who was raped and subsequently gave birth to a daughter. The state insisted that Carrie was sexually promiscuous and carried a gene for “feeblemindedness.”  She was therefore an excellent candidate for sterilization.  The fact that she was young, poor, and undereducated made her situation all the more difficult.  Overwhelmingly, it was those on society’s outskirts- the poor, the uneducated, the physically or mentally disabled, and minorities- who were targeted by these programs. At her trial, Dr. Albert Priddy testified (referring to the Buck family), “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.”

 

After Carrie’s six-month-old daughter was found to be “below average” by a sociologist from the Eugenics Records Office, Carrie Buck was ordered to be sterilized by the State of Virginia to prevent her from having any more “defective” children.  On appeal, the case went to the United States Supreme Court which ultimately decided with the state rather than with Carrie. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the opinion for the Court in which he stated, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

 

Fortunately, there are now those in the Virginia House of Delegates who stand more with Mr. Lewis Reynolds and not Justice Holmes.  A bipartisan coalition has come together to fight for him and all other living survivors of this state sponsored human rights abuse.  Del. Bob Marshall R-Prince William) and Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) have sponsored a bill (HB 1529) which would require the state to pay each living victim $50,000. That amount is that the same as victims were awarded last year in North Carolina– the first state to grant compensation.

 

The bill would also allow immediate family to view state records of their relatives- records that are presently sealed.  “My mom had a baby,” said victim Janet Ingram. “Well she was pregnant and I don’t know what happened to it. They didn’t tell us.”

 

Predictably, though, the bill has met with some resistance by those who think the price of compensation is too high and worry about the precedent it may set for other aggrieved groups. “My position is that it’s a laudable thing to do. [But] I’m not sure where this path stops,” said Del. John M. O’Bannon III (R-Henrico). “We’ve had many wrongs over the years.”

 

So far only ten victims have come forward and been positively identified in Virginia.  However the number was reduced to nine when Raymond Bowen of Lynchburg died in mid-February.

 

Mr. Reynolds and the other victims of state sponsored sterilizations have already been greatly wronged by the state of Virginia.  These Virginians have lived every day with the consequences of the actions of others. Their youth and their future were stolen from them in one foul swoop.  The price that they have already paid is immeasurable.  If the state of Virginia has the chance to make up for the gross indignity that their own citizens have endured then it should take it and see to it that they live out the rest of their lives in justice and security.

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