Legislature yet to apologize for eugenics law

1931 sterilization law targeted Abenaki, mentally ill, French-Canadians

By Guy Page

October 12, 2020 – Today, Vermont observes its second annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which replaced Columbus Day as an official state holiday in 2019. This year the Vermont Legislature failed to pass a resolution apologizing for a 1931 law allowing the State of Vermont to sterilize Abenaki Indians, mentally ill Vermonters, and other minority groups. 

As noted in Nancy Gallagher’s book “Breeding Better Vermonters,” the law was the culmination of a “progressive” eugenics movement spearheaded by UVM Professor Henry Perkins, a close ally of fellow eugenicist Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Before it was repealed, many Vermonters had undergone “voluntary” and involuntary sterilization. 

Resolution JRH7, “apologizing and expressing sincere condolences to all Vermonters and their families who were harmed as a result of State-sanctioned and eugenically inspired sterilization,” was introduced January 23, 2020 with more than a third of the House co-sponsoring. It was referred to the House General and Military Affairs Committee, after which no legislative activity was taken. Resolutions with broad tri-partisan support often are speedily adopted – but not JRH7, which reads in part:

“In 1925, UVM zoology professor Henry F. Perkins established the dubious Eugenics Survey of Vermont to measure defective behavior, “depravity,” and “immorality,” and it targeted members of Abenaki bands, Vermonters of mixed racial or French-Canadian heritage, the poor, and persons with disabilities.

“The General Assembly adopted 1931 Acts and Resolves No. 174, “An Act for Human Betterment By Voluntary Sterilization,” to prevent the procreation of individuals belonging predominately to these groups. This eugenically inspired legislation resulted in the sterilization of Vermonters, often without their fully informed voluntary consent. 

“The devastating impact on the lives of the sterilized individuals and their families was irreversible. On June 21, 2019, the University of Vermont issued a formal statement of sincere apology for its ‘unethical and regrettable’ eugenics role, and the General Assembly, on behalf of the State of Vermont, should issue a similar apology.”

The law referred to people with mental disabilities as “idiots,” “imbeciles,” and “feeble-minded.”  About 80% of those sterilized suffered from mental disabilities. According to the latest issue of “Counterpoint,” a Vermont newspaper for psychiatric survivors edited by Rep. Anne Donahue of Northfield, General & Military Affairs Chair Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) blamed the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Covid crisis put the brakes on this,” Stevens said. “I hope to re-introduce this in January.”

It is true that the pandemic sidetracked many bills. When it forced the Legislature first to adjourn and then to go “virtual,” legislative leaders at first said the remainder of the session would address pandemic-related bills only. 

However, during the August – September session, many non-pandemic bills and resolutions were passed. The Legislature eventually adopted 453 resolutions. Yet it was decided this much-sought-after apology could wait another year. 

Photo: Vermont State Hospital for the Insane, Waterbury. People with mental disabilities comprised about 80% of Vermonters targeted for involuntary, or less than voluntary, sterilization under a 1931 law. Abenakis and immigrants also were targeted by Vermont’s “elite,” led by UVM Prof. Henry Perkins. Credit Vermont Heritage Network/UVM.


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