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Vt. lawmakers weigh apologizing for eugenics

By Dave Gram
Associated Press Writer / February 2, 2010

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MONTPELIER, Vt.—If the state of Vermont had carried out a plan to sterilize his grandmother, Don Stevens said Tuesday, he "wouldn't be here."

Many Vermonters of mixed French Canadian and Native American heritage, like Stevens' grandmother, as well as poor, rural whites, were placed on a state-sanctioned list of "mental defectives" and degenerates in the 1930s and placed in state institutions like the Home for the Feeble Minded in Brandon.

Some had surgery after Gov. Stanley Wilson in 1931 won enactment of a sterilization law. It was designed to reduce the number of people seen as placing demands on public services, and to purify what University of Vermont zoology professor Henry Perkins, a national leader of the so-called "eugenics" movement, called "the fine old stock of original settlers in Vermont."

Now the Vermont Legislature, which once endorsed breeding people like cattle, is considering a resolution expressing regret. It vows never to repeat "this dark chapter in Vermont's history" and expresses the Legislature's "profound sorrow and sincere regret that such a program of sterilization was sanctioned."

For some of those testifying before the House Human Services Committee on Tuesday, the resolution did not go far enough. Committee members agreed to work on some wording changes to address the criticisms before voting to send the measure to the full House.

Vermont became the 27th state to pass a sterilization law in 1931. Indiana passed the first such law in 1907, followed closely by Connecticut, according to research provided the House committee by Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, author of the resolution.

Now, at least five states have issued apologies. A Virginia resolution, passed in 2001, urged citizens "to become familiar with the history of the eugenics movement, in the belief that a more educated, enlightened and tolerant population will reject absolutely any such abhorrent pseudoscientific movement in the future."

No one knows exactly how many sterilizations were performed as a result of Vermont's law. But Judy Dow, 55, of Essex, a descendant of one of the families targeted and a teacher of Native American culture, said about 6,000 Vermonters were identified by the Vermont Eugenics Survey, founded by Perkins, as being genetically defective.

Dow said the resolution needs to be broader than an expression of regret about the sterilizations. She spoke of families broken up by state social workers and by people being sent to institutions, sometimes for the offense of having French, and not English, as their first language.

Dow told the committee to focus only on those who were sterilized and not others included on the eugenics list "would be a slap in the face to the 6,000 people who are not being considered."

Stevens, a 43-year-old information technology director from Shelburne, said the effects of the eugenics movement were "still fresh in people's minds. My grandmother was listed in the Eugenics Survey." Other family members were labeled on the state's lists as "having only one eye," or as a "perfect devil," and therefore likely to breed criminal children.

He said he could live with something close to the resolution's current wording.

"You have to start somewhere. ... If you don't then nobody will ever feel confident that the state is really sorry for the eugenics movement," Stevens said.