Ninety years to the day after a eugenics bill was signed into law making sterilization legal, the Vermont House voted unanimously to apologize for the actions of its predecessors.
“We aimed to erase cultures that were not ours. We aimed to end biological lines of Vermonters because of who these Vermonters were,” Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said in presenting the bill Wednesday. “We punished them for their poverty and their heritage and called it science, and our intent was to make sure the changes we championed were effective and permanent.”
The resolution, J.R.H.2, is a four-page apology letter, “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.”
The Legislature voted 146-0 Wednesday afternoon to give preliminary approval to the resolution. It still needs final approval before it heads to the Senate.
Stevens, who chairs the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, said the committee “wrestled with” the notion of an apology for a long time in considering the resolution.
“What is it? What does it do? And why are we doing it now?” Stevens said. “An apology is both an end and a beginning, and it’s an acknowledgement that we as a General Assembly supported long-held and practiced policies and that those policies were harmful, and that the harm it inflicted was likely serious, widespread and enduring.”
Then, for nearly an hour, Stevens walked lawmakers through the history of the eugenics movement and Vermont’s role in it. In particular, he spoke about the Legislature’s passage of a bill endorsing a 1931 eugenics survey by UVM zoologist Henry Perkins.
“Eugenics, at its core, is a theory based on the idea that heredity determines superiority, and to enhance the whole of society, certain types needed to be eliminated by not allowing them to have children,” Stevens said, reading from a book called “Breeding Better Vermonters,” by Nancy Gallagher.
More than 250 people were sterilized under Vermont’s eugenics program, and many more were institutionalized and separated from their families. The practice in Vermont meets the criteria required to be considered a genocide, and the people affected by that genocide were overwhelmingly Indigenous, mixed-race, poor and disabled.
Stevens said legislators heard “heartbreaking” testimony from people whose families were “shattered” by state-sanctioned eugenics policies.
“We heard about the fear that ran through their families when a government car came up their driveway or their grandparents were pulled aside at school. We heard of children today either not knowing they were Indigenous, Abenaki, French Indian or French Canadian, or denying their heritage,” Stevens said. “We heard how, in order to survive in a society where they felt hunted, their families were forced to hide, abandon their culture, and destroy the trust they had with their neighbors and with the government.”
Following Stevens’ presentation, a slew of lawmakers spoke in favor of the bill, many citing their own families’ history with generational trauma as a reason for their vehement support.
“I think, personally, this is about the humility to recognize that we can err. We did that, and we can still now,” said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield. “We need to avoid the hubris of thinking that we are immune today to making decisions that, in hindsight, will be exposed to be wrongful, to think that our good intentions will protect from error. I hope that legislators in the future will apologize for any such actions on our behalf, as we do today for actions of the past.”
Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, talked about her experience working as a social worker at age 21 at the state hospital in Waterbury while sterilizations were still being performed at the hospital.
“I remember one young woman in particular, a young girl, I can’t remember her name, but I can picture her today … she certainly wasn’t mentally ill. She was probably poor,” Ancel said. “And I remember the day she told me about the operation she was about to have so that she wouldn’t be able to have children. When I cast my yes vote today, it will be in her honor and her memory.”
“We listened to hours of testimony, some of it sad, some of it pathetic, some of it absolutely infuriating,” said Rep. Chip Troiano, D-Stannard. “I do believe that the members of this body in 1931 did not sit down to do harm to anyone, but … the absolute disregard for other human beings is poignant. It stays in the front of my memory.”
Lawmakers spent weeks working on the bill, taking testimony from nearly two dozen mental health experts, historians and Abenaki leaders in crafting the apology.
Rep. Tiff Bluemle, D-Burlington, another member of the House General committee, said that, to her, what is perhaps the most important part of the bill is its final resolution, acknowledging that the General Assembly should take further action to address the continuing impact of state-sanctioned eugenics policies.
“A number of people have asked me about the value of an apology that’s not paired with immediate actions, and our committee appreciates that concern,” Bluemle said. “That’s why the resolution goes beyond apologizing by affirming that this body shall work to repair the harm that this body helped sanction and facilitate.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated what bill was signed into law 90 years ago.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.