Warner Apologizes for Sterilizations

Cecil writes: The Washington Post has a story today about Gov. Warner apologizing for Virginia’s eugenics policy, “denouncing a practice under which some 8,000 people were involuntarily sterilized from 1927 until as recently as 1979.”

A Buck vs. Bell historic marker was put up yesterday in front of Region Ten on Preston Avenue, giving the story of Carrie Buck, a seventeen-year-old girl selected to be the first Virginian sterilized under the 1924 Eugenical Sterlization Act. You can also find an article about this in today’s Progress.

11 Responses to “Warner Apologizes for Sterilizations”


  • There was a story on the AP wire a couple days ago about a war veteran being honored–he had been sterilized by the state of Virginia in his youth. The story made a point of saying that the state had never officially apologized for the practice. So I was surprised to see the story about Warner officially apologizing.

    I’m curious about what people think about these kinds of official apologies–like when Clinton apologized for slavery. Is there any point? Is it the least that governments can do?

  • Cecil wrote:

    I’m curious about what people think about these kinds of official apologies–like when Clinton apologized for slavery. Is there any point? Is it the least that governments can do?

    So much of the time, past transgressions get swept under the rug. Admitting them is hard, and of course an apology is no substitute for not having done anything wrong, but formally owning up to mistakes can improve relationships. This happens in both personal relationships between individuals and larger relationships between a country and its citizens. I think to some extent that it does seem like too little too late for a current leader to acknowledge mistakes made by a past one, but the acknowledgment puts to rest the implicit idea that if no official representative ever admitted his or her government’s actions were wrong, then that government must still stand behind the original idea.

    Of course, there’s the political motivation side of it, too — is the leader just trying to score points with (or avoid the wrath of) a particular group? That’s probably at least a partial motivation in all cases. But does that diminish the significance of the public apology? Here I think folks may disagree more, but I don’t think it does so entirely.

  • I agree. I think it’s telling that it is so hard to get a government official to apologize officially and formally in the first place–that, to me, suggests that the apology is worth something, otherwise they’d be handing them out left and right.

    Of course, U.S. culture has a distinctive relationship with the apology as a rhetorical form–particularly U.S. business culture. And I guess by “distinctive” I mean “wary”–apologizing is seen as a sign of weakness. That’s not the way it is everywhere, of course.

  • I’m curious about what people think about these kinds of official apologies–like when Clinton apologized for slavery. Is there any point? Is it the least that governments can do?

    Absolutely. I don’t know that it does any good, but I do think that it’s important. It is, quite literally, the least that they can do. (Without doing nothing, of course.) My mother’s got an essay on the topic, but it’s not on her site. Maybe she’ll post it here.

  • Of course, U.S. culture has a distinctive relationship with the apology as a rhetorical form–particularly U.S. business culture. And I guess by “distinctive” I mean “wary”– apologizing is seen as a sign of weakness. That’s not the way it is everywhere, of course.

    I think you are right that businesses and individual persons in the US are wary of offering official apologies not only because they are signs of weakness, but also because such declarations can be used by the aggrieved parties in their search for legal/financial recourse.

    But when compared to, say, Japanese, we Americans might seem not wary, but downright eager to produce apologies which mean something substantive. The Japanese have a complex linguistic hierarchy of apologies — different forms and different semantics – which they use to indicate degrees of personal/collective regret (and shame, really). For those Europeans and Asians detained and abused by the Japanese in Asia during WWII, the “grade” of the apology very much matters. These linguistic details come to the forefront of the press and become a diplomatic issue every time Japanese monarchs travel overseas.

  • I think the comparison to Clinton’s slavery apology misses an important point here. Many of the people sterilized at the state’s hands are still alive — as many as 27, according to my very knowledgable source. So the criticism levied at our former president’s statement — that it was pointless after 135 years — doesn’t really apply here. The sterilization issue has a unique immediateness to it.

  • Hmm…that raises another issue, then, which is “reparations.” People dismiss the idea of reparations for slavery on the grounds that no one alive today actually suffered first-hand from slavery, so therefore they shouldn’t get any money.

    But if there are people still alive today who were forcibly sterilized, should the government pay reparations to them? Has their been any kind of monetary settlement? Not that money makes it okay, but one could make the argument that the government owes them something for the pain and suffering it inflicted directly upon them.

  • WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

    (an excerpt from “Birdseed Cookies: A Fractured Memoir” by Janis Jaquith)

    When my son was three years old, he went tearing down the aisle of a store and slammed into a man who was minding his own business. A man who, it turned out, had a wooden leg. Jack knocked the prosthesis out from under this man, who then fell flat on the floor.

    If remorse could kill, I would have dropped dead at that moment.

    I tried to help, but the man, furious, waved us away. I hissed to my son, “Say you’re sorry!” My three-year-old raised his chin defiantly and said, “No! It was an accident. I didn’t mean it.”

    I found my son’s behavior confusing, incomprehensible. What was he thinking? How could I be related to this monster? And so, even though I had said it dozens of times during this endless minute since my son smacked into him, I turned to the man and said, “I am so sorry.”

    I couldn’t change the world-view of a three-year-old, but I could set an example; show my son that, in the adult world, we express regret and compassion whether the events are caused by us or by someone else–whether intentional or accidental.

    A while back, President Clinton contemplated apologizing to African-Americans on behalf of the government of the United States.

    I know just how he feels. When I think of the way our forefathers behaved, I find it confusing, incomprehensible. What were they thinking? Putting chains on people and tossing them into the holds of ships like so much lumber. Buying and selling human beings and calling themselves Christians.

    What was that all about?

    And it wasn’t so long ago. The repercussions are still causing pain. And so, how hard could it be, for those of us whose families have not felt the pain of enslavement, to say:

    We are sorry. We are all so very sorry.

  • I think this historical marker is well deserved although it’s a damn shame that it even happened.

    I saw either a presentation by Paul Lombardo or one of his students. It was about the practice of eugenics and how it was predominant throughout the University of Virginia medical school curriculum in the early part of our century. The presenter made a point that proponents of eugenics (including forced sterilizations) were the founding fathers (so to speak) of UVa Med School. One of the highlights of this talk was an organizational chart which showed the teachers of eugenics at UVa and their students and subsequent careers. Here’s the scary part: most of the students who studied under Dr. Jordan and others had careers in public health where they set agendas, guidelines, etc. So they had an opportunity to put their theories of eugenics in public health. (And, Carrie Buck, I believe had her forced sterilization at UVa along with many others.)

    My question is why have the marker at Region Ten? Region Ten had nothing to do with eugenics and forced sterilizations. Why not go to the source? It would be more appropriate to have it at the entrance of UVa Hospital as a reminder to the physicians, residents, fellows, and students (as well as the public) of how medicine can be used for the wrong reasons. It wouldn’t be a bad reminder for the public either to be a little suspicious of things done in the name of cutting edge medicine (no pun intended).

  • like when Clinton apologized for slavery

    The thing is, I don’t believe President Clinton ever did apologize for slavery. He put out a trial balloon and danced around the issue for a while, but, in the end, decided against it.

    Harry Landers

  • It’s probably at Region Ten because of who was being sterilized. Most of those sterilized were mentally retarded in some way, hence the idea that they shouldn’t be reproducing. This practice was, of course, implemented before most real genetic research proved a difference between genetic defects and congenital ones, and they thought that simply everything was passed on to one’s children. It was a misguided attempt at improving the overall health of the population. About as misguided as trying to brush your teeth with the toilet brush to get rid of germs.

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