Vermont Eugenics Survey Regretted

The House Human Services Committee heard powerful testimony Tuesday concerning a resolution seeking acknowledgment and an apology for the state’s sterilization of “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded, or insane persons” in the 1930s.

The testimony came largely from Abenaki, who said Native peoples were targeted for the mistreatment. Judy Dow of the Vermont Commission for Native American Affairs said Italians and Irish may also have been targets.

The ACLU supports people’s right to make reproductive choices. The Vermont Eugenics Survey — when the state took away this right through supposed “voluntary” sterilization — was one of the grossest violations of individual freedom in Vermont’s history.

If committee members had misgivings about the resolution, the misgivings concerned whether it went far enough.

Sterilization was only one piece of a concerted effort by the state to break up families, Dow said.

She said 623 members of her family were “tracked down,” institutionalized, “and in some cases we presume sterilized.” These people were illiterate, largely spoke French, so often didn’t understand what was being said to them.

“This was a form of genocide — through sterilization, by breaking families up, repeatedly, over and over and over,” she said. Vermont officials even tracked specific families when members moved to other states. Vermont officials wrote to officials in the other states, asking them to institutionalize the individuals. Those letters still exist, she said, and continue to cause shame for many families.

“Professor Perkins playing god caused a lot of hurt and discontent,” said Nancy Gallagher, author of a book about the Vermont Eugenics Survey.

Henry F. Perkins was the University of Vermont zoology professor who established the survey. The survey’s mission was “to determine the extent of defective behavior and depraved immorality in the state by combining biology, education, and social work,” according to the resolution.

Sterilization would improve “the public welfare of idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons likely to procreate,” a 1931 law authorizing sterilization said.

The number of Vermonters sterilized is unknown. The Eugenics Survey was stopped in 1936, but Dow told the committee the commission has collected stories that sterilization may have continued into the 1980s.

Revisions will be made to the resolution and a new draft brought back to the committee for further discussion.

Read the resolution.