Several lawmakers choked up Friday afternoon as a House committee unanimously signed off on a bill apologizing for Vermont’s role in the eugenics movement.
“If I don’t accomplish anything else in the Legislature, I’m so happy to have been part of this,” said Rep. Tommy Walz, D-Barre.
Following Friday’s approval by the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, the resolution next goes to the House floor.
It consists of a four-page apology “expressing sorrow and regret to all individual Vermonters and their families and descendants who were harmed as a result of state-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices.”
It particularly addresses a 1931 survey that sought to “breed a better Vermonter” by sterilizing and institutionalizing Indigenous people, French-Canadians and those who were mixed-race, poor or disabled. This eugenics survey was led by UVM zoology professor Henry Perkins but required the support of the Legislature.
Tom Stevens, who chairs the committee, said looking at the more fast-paced money and policy bills that other committees have spent time on this session was like “coming up for air” after spending time working on the details of the eugenics bill for so many weeks.
“We’ve been in our bubble here working on really quite a different bill than what the rest of us are working on,” Stevens said. “It really is top-notch stuff. We take it at a different level it seems, sometimes.”
The original version of the resolution in the Vermont Legislature dates back to 2009. Legislative Counsel Michael Chernik told lawmakers Friday that it was the longest he’s ever worked on a single document.
Before approving the bill Friday, committee members spent a few minutes discussing the final clause of the resolution, which states that further legislative action “should be taken to address the continuing impact of eugenics policies, and related practices of disenfranchisement, ethnocide, and genocide.”
First, lawmakers discussed whether “should” was compelling enough of a word, ultimately deciding that it fit the bill.
“I believe the word ‘should’ takes the obligation away from future legislative action, but the rest of the language of the statement does show firm intent, and I think it needs to remain firm,” said Rep. Matthew Birong, D-Vergennes.
Then, the committee questioned whether the terms “ethnocide” and “genocide” were appropriate in this context. Lisa Hango, R-Berkshire, said she wasn’t “entirely comfortable” with the language, noting that she objected to language on genocide in similar legislation last biennium.
Other committee members spoke strongly in favor of the words, saying that although it is disturbing that they apply in this case, they are accurate words to describe what happened during Vermont’s eugenics movement.
“The words themselves are very striking. The words are uncomfortable and harsh,” said Rep. Barbara Murphy, I-Fairfax. “But in my mind, I think they are very applicable.”
Walz agreed, saying that although he is “very, very sensitive to genocide words,” here, they are necessary.
“We’re not talking about death camps here. We’re not talking about Nazi Germany. We’re not talking about the breakup of Yugoslavia with mass executions. However, I am convinced that this is the correct word, as given the definition as provided, that I believe was agreed to in Geneva after World War II,” Walz said.
Hango ultimately threw her support behind the clause, saying she “didn’t want to see this stopped from moving forward in any way.”
Next up, the legislation heads to the House floor, which is scheduled to take up the resolution on March 31, the 90th anniversary of when the eugenics survey was signed into law.
“I don’t know what it’ll be like on the floor. I can’t expect that people will be as inclusive of the things we’ve taken with us on this journey,” Stevens said. “It was a lot for us, and it’s going to be a lot for our peers to hear that we did something wrong, that we did something, and it turned out to be the wrong thing.”
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