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W.Va. House passes repeal of forced sterilization law

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly 100 men and women were sterilized in West Virginia under a compulsory state law intended to weed out the "mentally incompetent" from the 1930s through the 1950s, according to a recent report.

On Monday, the House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill (HB2463) that would repeal the law that allows forced sterilizations for mentally ill people.

"It's an archaic law that we should have gotten rid of a long time ago," said Don Perdue, chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee.

A Virginia-based Christian group's threat to file a lawsuit against West Virginia prompted lawmakers to propose legislation to eliminate the involuntary sterilization law.

"We are pleased to see that West Virginia is on its way to closing a dark chapter in its history," said Mark Bold of the Christian Law Institute in Lynchburg, Va. "Abolishing this repugnant law is the only appropriate action by the Legislature, and we are encouraged by its unanimous support."

No one has tried to use the law to sterilize an individual in West Virginia since 1956. But the 1929 law, which allows circuit courts to approve sterilizations for "mental defectives," has remained on the books.

West Virginia is the only state with such a sterilization law, Bold said.

The West Virginia Human Sterilization Act gives parents or legal guardians the authority to file a circuit court petition to sterilize a person under their care. The court may then enter a legal order designating a physician to perform the sterilization procedure.

Under the West Virginia law, patients with "insanity, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy" could be sterilized.

Between 1929 and 1956, 15 men and 83 women were sterilized in West Virginia under the sterilization act, according to a recent study by University of Vermont sociology professor Lutz Kaelber. Thirty-three state residents were sterilized in 1955 alone.

Fifty-two percent of those sterilized were deemed "mentally deficient," 23 percent "mentally ill" and another 23 percent weren't classified.

The last known forced-sterilization case in the U.S. was in 1981.

The House bill repealing West Virginia's sterilization act now goes to the Senate.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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