Legislature Takes Up Resolution to Apologize for Role in Eugenics Movement | Off Message

Legislature Takes Up Resolution to Apologize for Role in Eugenics Movement


Rep. Kate Webb, a leading sponsor of the resolution - COLIN FLANDERS
  • Colin Flanders
  • Rep. Kate Webb, a leading sponsor of the resolution
More than 50 House lawmakers have sponsored a resolution that would formally apologize for their predecessors' roles in the Vermont eugenics movement.

The apology is a necessary step toward atoning for the sins of that “dark period” in Vermont’s history, said Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), the resolution's lead sponsor, during testimony on Tuesday before the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee.

"For true healing to occur, we must acknowledge what this was, and the great suffering that it caused to Vermont citizens of the state — a state that was charged to protect them," Webb said.

The resolution comes nearly 90 years after the Vermont legislature passed a law seeking to prevent the procreation of individuals thought to be at risk of having children who were "idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded or insane."

The 1931 law, passed halfway through the 12-year Vermont Eugenics Survey, paved the way for the sterilization of more than 250 people — most of whom were Native Americans, French Canadians, people of color and the poor.

These procedures occurred “often without their fully informed voluntary consent,” according the resolution, which expresses the legislature’s “sincere sorrow” to those who were harmed as a result of these “state-sanctioned” acts.

“The devastating impact on the lives of the sterilized individuals and their families was irreversible,” the resolution says.

Eugenics was widely popular and considered progressive in its day, counting among its supporters president Theodore Roosevelt and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. In recent years, however, Vermont organizations have been forced to grapple with how to judge historical figures tied to the movement.

In 2018, the University of Vermont removed former president Guy Bailey’s name from its library and soon after apologized for its role in the eugenics survey, which was established by a university professor. And last year, the state Department of Libraries chose to rename the Dorothy Canfield Fisher book award over her involvement.

The Sara Holbrook Community Center, meanwhile, decided that its namesake's tie to eugenics was not egregious enough to take action.

The legislature has also struggled with how to acknowledge this period of the state's history. The House attempted two similar resolutions a decade ago, but neither made it out of the chamber.

Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury), chair of the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee, was among the dozens of lawmakers to sign on to the resolution. He said he plans to host further testimony so that his committee has a “deeper understanding” of the issue.

“With my heart, I could vote this out today,” Stevens told the committee. “But we’re going to take a closer look at it and learn what we need to learn on this issue.”