Virginia state now regrets sterilising the 'feebleminded'

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The Independent US

Virginia is saying sorry, sort of, to the thousands who were sterilised by the state over several decades in the last century because they were deemed "feebleminded" or otherwise unworthy of the white race.

Virginia is saying sorry, sort of, to the thousands who were sterilised by the state over several decades in the last century because they were deemed "feebleminded" or otherwise unworthy of the white race.

Stopping short of a full apology, the Virginia Senate expressed "profound regret" for the state's policy of eugenics, once considered a science and espoused by Adolph Hitler, which advocated "improvement" of the white gene pool by selective breeding.

Under laws passed in 1924 and repealed only in 1979, Virginia sterilised 8,000 of its citizens. The victims were selected if they displayed any shortcoming considered hereditary, such as mental illness, retardation, epilepsy, criminal behaviour or alcoholism.

Many were committed to the wards of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg. Raymond Hudlow, a decorated Second World War veteran and a former inmate, said he was sterilised at the colony when he was16, in 1942.

"They treated us just like hogs, like we had no feelings," he said. He was sent to the colony after his father told the welfare officer his son had repeatedly run away from home and was beyond his control. Nothing was said about his father beating him often.

"They just came and got me before I woke up one morning. They wheeled me and throwed me up on the operating table," he added. "The only way I found out [what had happened], was when an employee on Ward 7 told me I wouldn't be able to father children."

Pressure on the state assembly to say something about the sterilisation laws built after historians and reporters drew clear links between the Virginia laws and the enthusiasm shown for eugenics by Nazi Germany. The research also helped to illustrate the extent to which the so-called science was nothing more than another form of white supremacy in a very conservative state.

A further 29 US states adopted similar laws and about 60,000 sterilisations were done. Virginia did the most, and California was second.

Efforts to get the Assembly to apologise were abandoned early because sponsors feared some lawmakers would resist. Even the expression of regret drew opposition. Senator Warren Barry, a Republican, referred to a "trend in this country to try to recreate history. Now we go back and stir the pot on history, and take the most unfortunate chapter in our history and try to relive them for no real reason".

But Patricia Ticer, a Democrat, condemned the eugenics movement as "genetic engineering at its very worst. In order not to repeat these past mistakes, it is necessary and important to acknowledge them and to express regret".

A class action suit by victims was thrown out by a judge in 1984, based on a ruling on a 1927 US Supreme Court judgment backing Virginia's eugenics laws. Mr Hudlow, now 75, is still haunted. "I remember this just as it was yesterday," he said. "It has always been in my mind. It has never left me."

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