State Del. Patrick Hope said he will call for the creation of a task force during the 2013 legislative session to identify any surviving victims of state sterilization and begin the conversation about what can be done to make these people whole.
Virginia sterilized an estimated 7,300 to 8,300 people under state law between 1924 and 1979, according to research by the University of Vermont. Men and women were forcibly sterilized after being deemed "feeble-minded" or promiscuous under the notion of eugenics, social-engineering designed to increase specific characteristics.
Ten years ago, then-Gov. Mark Warner formally apologized for the acts.
Hope, a Democrat whose district includes Arlington, said identifying the survivors of this process, letting them come forward and tell their story is "the natural next step" in the healing process. He said he plans to ask Gov. Bob McDonnell for a meeting to discuss the matter.
Ideally, Hope said, the task force will spend about a year identifying survivors, collecting testimony and formulating recommendations. Then, lawmakers should be able to discuss reparations — whether that's financial compensation or something symbolic, like a museum, he said.
"I know it's not going to make up for what we've done to them. But I also can't stand here and say 'I'm sorry' is enough. Something else needs to be done," Hope said.
"I don't think we'll know what that is until we have that conversation. And we shouldn't be afraid of that conversation."
Virginia has a unique place in the history of American eugenics. A 1927 Supreme Court decision against Charlottesville native Carrie Buck legitimized the practice nationwide.
Buck was sterilized at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg — today known as the Central Virginia Training Center. Buck's mother and daughter were also sterilized.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the 1927 decision:
"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…
Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Last week, Hope visited the buildings in Lynchburg where Buck lived and was sterilized. The 85th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision was Friday.
While there, Hope said he met with four people who were forcibly sterilized under Virginia law. Some didn't know what was happening to them at the time, he said. Others did, and were sterilized under protest.
Hope looks to North Carolina as an example of what could be done. There, Gov. Bev Perdue has pushed for the state to pay $50,000 in compensation to each sterilization victim, though the North Carolina Senate blocked the measure earlier this year.
Last week, the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation said it had identified 186 victims in that state, most of them still living, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Hope said he estimates between 200 and 300 victims of sterilization still living in Virginia. He said he's kicking around the idea of having the state set aside, say, $5 million to pay restitution, with whatever's left going toward a museum.
"It's a question of priorities. It's a question of whether we want to right a wrong," he said. "It's not a question of whether we can afford it."
Hope said only twice in Virginia's history has the state mandated medical procedures — first with sterilization and more recently with ultrasounds.
"Virginia should take responsibility for its actions," he said.