ACLU of Virginia praises General Assembly on action to compensate forced sterilization victims

acluThe American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia today commended members of the General Assembly for including funding in its budget to compensate victims of Virginia’s shameful eugenics program.

The long-awaited victory comes as a result of years of advocacy by a bi-partisan group of legislators, Del. Bob Marshall (R – Prince William), Del. Patrick Hope (D – Arlington), Del. Ben Cline (D – Amherst) and Del. Marcus Simon (D – Falls Church), along with a diverse group of organizations, including the Family Foundation, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Planned Parenthood, the Virginia Catholic Conference, and the ACLU of Virginia.

Under the eugenics program, the Commonwealth sterilized thousands of individuals without their knowledge or consent.  This small step toward justice comes 30 years after the ACLU settled a case against the Lynchburg Training School & Hospital that resulted in the Commonwealth agreeing to launch a media campaign to inform victims of their sterilization and to provide counseling services for victims.

“There is no way to provide adequate justice to these victims,” said Aisha Huertas Michel, director of the Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project for the ACLU of Virginia. “Politicians, like those who passed the forced sterilization program, should not have the right to decide whether an individual has a child. The victims of forced sterilizations were stripped of this right without their knowledge or consent, and we hope this compensation provides them with a small measure of justice,” said Michel.

Virginia enacted its forced sterilization program in 1924 – the same year the legislature adopted the Racial Integrity Act that prohibited interracial marriages. In 1927, after surviving a constitutional review in Buck v. Bell, the program began.  From 1927-1979, the sterilization program resulted in an estimated 8,000 people involuntarily losing their ability to conceive, simply because the Commonwealth deemed them “unfit” to procreate.  In most cases, the individuals were “patients” at state mental institutions who were sent there because of alleged mental illness, physical deformity, “feeble-mindedness,” or simply because they were homeless.

In an effort to overturn Buck v. Bell, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against Virginia in December 1980 (Poe v. Lynchburg ).  The ACLU sought to have the court declare that the sterilization program violated the victims’ constitutional rights and prohibit further sterilizations without informed consent.  It also sought to compel the state to notify all people who had been sterilized and to provide those patients with medical and psychological assistance at state expense.  In 1985 the Commonwealth and ACLU settled the case.  The Commonwealth agreed to launch a media campaign to inform victims of their sterilization and to provide counseling services to victims.

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