'Everybody Wants a Family'
LYNCHBURG, Va. - Sarah Wiley still remembers some details of the medical procedure she had half a century ago: being taken to the operating room on a stretcher, the administration of ether as an anesthetic and a skeleton in the room that potentially served as a reference tool at the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital in Virginia.
But while other aspects of the operation may remain murky, its results have left a lasting impression on her body and mind.
"I was sad, I didn't like it," says Wiley, now 77. "They told me that I could never have kids."
Wiley was one of between 7,000 and 8,300 people sterilized with Virginia's blessing from the early 20th century until about 1980. At least 60,000 people in roughly 30 U.S. states were sterilized during the same time period, the result of a movement that in part aimed to weed out criminal behavior but also encompassed an even more sinister goal.
Many of the operations occurred under the umbrella of eugenics, the idea that the human population can be improved through selective reproduction. Those put under the knife to prevent the passing on of potentially harmful hereditary traits often were deemed mentally disabled – or "feebleminded" – and subsequently, a financial drain on society.
"The change that occurred in this country that allowed sterilization to go on was really less about understanding how the genetics of heredity works and much more about trying to cut down on the number of people who were on welfare who were having babies," says Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University who has written extensively on the American eugenics movement.
Now, more than 50 years after Wiley's operation, two Virginia lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle are pushing a bill that would make the state the second in the U.S. to offer restitution to those sterilized under the authority of state law and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that lent constitutional credence to the practice.
Those still alive would receive a total of $50,000 if they come forward before the measure would sunset in 2019 – a price advocates say is a small, symbolic one to pay for such an egregious wrong.
"Until these people die off, we owe them a restitutional remedy," says Mark Bold of the nonprofit Christian Law Institute, which is advocating for the bill and helping to find surviving victims of sterilization. "We wait 50 years from now, it'll just be a history lesson ... that's all this will be."
Concerns regarding the cumulative cost of the payments – along with the possibility that such a move would allow others who have suffered historical wrongs to seek money from the state – helped derail a similar measure in the Virginia General Assembly last year. A fiscal impact statement attached to this year's bill estimates that roughly 700 victims would seek compensation and places the cost to the state at about $39 million.
But one of the bill's chief sponsors, Republican Del. Bob Marshall, says he plans to push for capping the measure's costs at $5 million per year. Bold also argues that victims of sterilization pose a unique case compared to direct victims of other wrongs, like slavery, because they are still alive.
And to date, Bold says, the potential payout would be far below the legislative estimate, since so far there are only about 10 to 12 Virginia victims who have come forward.
Wiley, one of those victims, says she remembers a hearing prior to her procedure where she was told she could leave the Virginia facility, return to her hometown and get married if she consented to the operation, about which she knew little.
Another former facility resident is 86-year-old Lewis Reynolds, a Vietnam and Korean War veteran who was sterilized after being diagnosed – wrongly – as an epileptic. Reynolds, who was married twice and only learned later in life that he could not have children, says the payment would help him get out of debt.
"Everybody want(s) a family," Reynolds says. "I sit back and I think sometimes [about] what kind of daddy would I have been."
Correction 01/28/14: The former name of the Central Virginia Training Center was misidentified in the photo caption.