Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Virginia State News

August 6, 2012

Va. lawmaker proposes payments for eugenics victims

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Exactly 85 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state governments could force involuntary surgical sterilizations of people society deemed genetically inferior or deficient under laws based on a discredited pseudoscience called eugenics.

Delegate Patrick A. Hope, D-Arlington, plans to mark Monday’s anniversary by calling for “a symbolic payment” from the General Assembly and Gov. Bob McDonnell for victims of eugenics who are still alive.

Eugenics is among the darkest stains on Virginia’s 405-year history.

It was born in 1924 as Virginia’s aristocracy sought to purify the white race. It mandated involuntary surgical sterilization for virtually any human malady believed to be hereditary, including mental illness, mental retardation, epilepsy, criminal behavior, alcoholism and immorality. Even people deemed to be “ne’er-do-wells” were sometimes targeted.

The same law banned interracial marriage.

“A symbolic payment? What’s a symbolic payment? How would you do that? How would you find the victims?” asked Deborah Skiscim of suburban Midlothian. She said she had a cousin who was institutionalized under the eugenics law, and because of that she never met her cousin.

“There is no amount that could ever really give back to those people what was taken from them,” Skiscim said in a Friday interview.

Hope plans to begin Virginia’s eugenics reparations at a Monday news conference on Capitol Square.

“I don’t know if we will even do a bill right now. Maybe all we do is raise awareness and find out who comes forward, how it affects their lives,” Hope said in a telephone interview.

If he’s serious about payments, legislation is the only way to do it. He could do it as a bill. At a minimum, the legislature would have to approve an amendment to the state budget to appropriate state money.

North Carolina’s legislature wrestled with a bill for more than a year that would provide up to $50,000 in compensation to each surviving victim of that state’s eugenics program. North Carolina passed its eugenics law in 1929, and it forced more than 7,600 people to undergo sterilizations. As of June, North Carolina officials had verified that 146 living victims, and estimated that as many as 1,800 who had been sterilized could still be alive. The legislation failed.

Virginia’s most powerful lawmaker, House Speaker Bill Howell, doesn’t hold out much hope for similar legislation here.

“Goodness gracious, we’re in the middle of the worst economic recovery since the Depression and we’ve got so much already on our plate,” Howell said. “I just got off the phone discussing problems we’ve got with the VRS (the underfunded state pension system), so I think we’ve got a lot more serious issues to deal with first.”

Without legislation, McDonnell is powerless to order payments. J. Tucker Martin, the governor’s chief spokesman, said McDonnell considers the sterilizations “horrific and unconscionable” and that he would review any legislation to compensate its victims.

Any “symbolic payment” could present the state with legal headaches, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. Should the state open the door to damages, symbolic or otherwise, for past wrongs, an enterprising plaintiff’s lawyer could construe it as an admission of guilt by the state and sue on behalf of victims seeking even bigger judgments.

“It’s hard to pin down what he means by a ‘symbolic payment,”’ Tobias said. “When money changes hands, how does that play back on the issue of liability?”

While it’s doubtful that such litigation would succeed, a legal defense would cost money, Tobias said, and that alone could doom reparation legislation.

Other states, particularly in the South, modeled their eugenics laws after Virginia’s.  Wording chillingly similar to Virginia’s statute appeared in Adolf Hitler’s 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases.

Yet in Virginia, the law remained on the books until 1979. By then, it had brought about more than 8,000 forced sterilizations.

It wasn’t until the 21st century that Virginia began to atone for decades of institutionalized cruelty. In 2001, a resolution expressing regret for Virginia’s participation in eugenics passed the state Senate unanimously and passed the House of Delegates on an 85-10 vote. One year later, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner took it a step further with a formal apology for eugenics. Also in 2002, the House accorded one of its highest honors to a World War II hero who was sterilized under the eugenics law.

Raymond W. Hudlow was labeled as a “mental defective” as a teen because he frequently ran away from home to escape his father’s beatings. Because of it, he was hauled off to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded near Lynchburg, where sterilization surgery was forced on him in 1942.

He was drafted a few months later. He waded ashore into the blazing German machine guns of Omaha Beach on D-Day. He won the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal for his valor.

Hudlow died in 2003. He never received a dime in state reparations.

 

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