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Eugenics Victims Heard At Last [archive]

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Eugenics victims are heard at last: Outrage voiced over state sterilization

State-sanctioned sterilization, which has sparked new outrage in the wake of advance publicity for a book on Vermont's eugenics program, was never a secret in the middle decades of the century, when states from California to Maine allowed the sterilization of people whose genetic material was considered inferior.

But while historians have established that at least 60,000 Americans were sterilized - some who had been coerced, and others who had not given their consent - the voices of people who fell victim to these programs have not been heard.

In the last week, however, three people have contacted the Vermont historian Nancy Gallagher, the author of ''Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State,'' saying that they were sterilized and that they never expected to read about what happened to them in the newspaper.

The new witnesses could add to historians' understanding of the scope of sterilization efforts this century in the United States, in Vermont and beyond.

Moreover, the publicity surrounding Gallagher's book has shed new light on the largely forgotten story of Vermont's sterilization program. Some in the state are calling for an official inquiry; others, especially those from Abenaki Indian families singled out by the eugenicists, are asking questions about their family histories.

''Vermont is abuzz'' over the long-dormant issue of sterilization policy, said Fred Wiseman, a professor of humanities at Johnson State College and the director of the Abenaki Tribal Museum. ''People in the governor's office are thinking about it. I've gotten all kinds of calls about it. Just about everybody in the [Abenaki] Nation that has ever had this happen is thinking about it.''

The idea of a government response may not be farfetched. In other countries that have had sterilization programs, victims have demanded reparations. Canada and Sweden, which had their own race-purifying programs at work through the 1970s, have both recently paid millions of dollars in compensation to people who were sterilized by government order.

But there have never been cash settlements in the United States, where even the process of gathering information on what happened - mostly behind the closed doors of state institutions - has been tortuous.

Now, as the majority of those sterilized move into their late 70s and 80s, it may be too late. They do not have much longer to live, and, as researchers on the topic point out, they leave no descendants to demand historical vindication.

''I can tell you this - the clock is ticking,'' said Dr. Philip R. Reilly, who is director of the Shriver Center for Mental Retardation and author of ''The Surgical Solution,'' a 1991 history of involuntary sterilization. ''It won't be long before you won't be able to find anyone alive who was sterilized.''

But the response to Gallagher's Vermont research has raised the possibility of a breakthrough, and shows that information about eugenic history still has the power to shock. After her series of telephone conversations, Gallagher is increasingly certain that sterilization is a topic worth addressing - if not by her, then by the victims themselves.

''I think they ought to redress that type of thing. I mean, what kind of country are we if we can't do that?,'' said Gallagher, who began her research for a master's thesis. ''Sometimes I think I've opened Pandora's Box. And other times I think, there are stories out there ... That's a pain that we need to look at.''

Vermont's sterilization law came within the context of an international push for eugenics - the idea that traits such as poor health and bad character could be bred out of the race by preventing ''inferior'' genetic material from being passed on.

Starting with the passage of a series of laws, beginning in Indiana in 1907 and continuing until mid-1970s, some states provided for the sterilization of upwards of 60,000 epileptics, alcoholics, those considered discipline problems, and retarded people. Some subjects consented, and others were coerced or had no knowledge of what was being done to them.

In 1931, Vermont became the 24th state to pass a sterilization law, according to Gallagher, and the number of sterilizations performed there was a fraction of those performed nationwide. The only official data on sterilization - a report by the eugenics survey mastermind, Henry Perkins, in the late 1940s - put the number of procedures at around 200. John Moody, an independent ethnohistorian from Sharon, Vt., says the real number is much higher, perhaps in the thousands.

In the United States, unlike Sweden and Canada, the policy was upheld by the Supreme Court, Reilly said. The court sided with Virginia state law in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, which permitted the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded to sterilize 18-year-old inmate Carrie Buck.

In his written opinion on the case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, ''It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or letting them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.''

Since then, there has been only one attempt in this country to secure compensation for forced sterilization.

In 1980, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in Lynchburg, V a., on behalf of 7,200 state mental patients who were sterilized without their knowledge until the practice was ended in 1973. The suit sought damages and notification of people who had been sterilized, as well as a ruling that the sterilizations were unconstitutional. The ACLU and the state settled the case.

But the settlements in Canada and Sweden suggest that the public mood may have changed.

Moody, who has worked extensively with the Abenakis, has pressed the state to open up records from the eugenics survey and from two ''training schools'' that frequently sterilized young inmates. He would like to see the state begin to contact families and inform them what occurred.

Referring to Vermont Governor Howard Dean, he said, ''I'd love to see the Dean administration take a proactive stance.'' Failing that, Moody said, he could imagine filing a class-action lawsuit.

Informing those who have been sterilized is an initiative that has never been undertaken on a national scale, said Reilly, and probably never will be.

''Now many of them are very old people, and there is the ethical issue of letting sleeping dogs lie,'' Reilly said.

And among the more angry of the Abenaki, sterilization simply seems like another aspect of a multi-faceted campaign to destroy them.

Homer St. Francis, a longtime chief of the Abenaki, reels off the names of childless family members who he assumes were sterilized. He sees sterilization as part of a larger government conspiracy to eliminate his family - a campaign that he said includes generations of abduction and outright murder.

When historians in Vermont first discovered crates of Henry Perkins's eugenic surveys, St. Francis said he found names of people he knew on the list of research subjects, people who had been singled out as ''degenerate'' by Perkins's researchers. It confirmed everything he had already believed about the state and the Abenaki.

''It made me sick,'' he said. ''How would you feel if people were trying to kill you?''

And while there was some talk about seeking a legal remedy, it faded among the tribe's long list of grievances.

''We don't have any money for attorneys, so we just grit our teeth and bear it,'' he said.

--written by Ellen Barry, Globe correspondent

Additional Reading

 Abenaki Tribe
 Abenaki Words
 Abenaki Myths
 Vermont Native Americans

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