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A Small Sign of Virginia's Sins


The Virginian-Pilot
January 25th, 2013

There is no way to truly compensate tens of thousands of men and women who were declared "defective" and involuntarily sterilized under cruel programs operated by Virginia, North Carolina and dozens of other states.

But lawmakers, even after all these years, should still try to make amends.

In Richmond, the General Assembly is considering a measure that would offer $50,000 to people once deemed by the state to be unfit to have children. Between 1924 and 1979, more than 7,000 men and women were sterilized after being classified "insane, idiotic, imbecilic, feeble-minded or epileptic."

Among the victims was Lewis Reynolds, who was sterilized at age 13 because he was wrongly believed to have epilepsy. He ended up serving his country in two wars and retiring from the Marine Corps after 30 years.

As The Pilot's Bill Sizemore recounted in a story this week, Reynolds, now 85, didn't find out what had happened to him until after he had gotten married. He said his wife left him because they were unable to have a family.

Reynolds' second marriage lasted 47 years, ending with his wife's death five years ago. He said they'd always wished they could have had children.

Del. Patrick Hope, a Democrat from Arlington, and Del. Bob Marshall, a Republican from Manassas, have introduced a bill that would offer payment to Reynolds and other victims who are still alive. The total number of survivors is unknown.

Last year, North Carolina nearly became the first state in the nation to compensate victims of its eugenics program.

Approximately 7,600 residents, many of them poor and African American, were sterilized there between 1929 and 1974. The list of alleged offenses was long and included epilepsy, alcoholism, criminal behavior and promiscuity.

The bill passed the state House of Representatives and had the backing of then-Gov. Bev Perdue. But the state Senate balked. Although fewer than 75 survivors have been identified so far, opponents expressed fear about the cost of compensation. Some said the payments would encourage others to seek compensation for other injustices of the past, including slavery.

Perdue's successor, Pat McCrory, has said he supports the measure, and House Speaker Thom Tillis said he'll back the bill again. But the Senate's leader, Phil Berger, is again raising concerns about cost.

The sad fact is that both states have waited so long to address this injustice that the majority of the victims are no longer with us.

There's little money to be saved by delaying the matter. There is, however, more honor to be lost if Virginians and North Carolinians turn their backs again on people like Lewis Reynolds.

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