Compensation for eugenics victims: Good, but what of present evils?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 16, 2015

When the Virginia General Assembly voted to compensate victims of forced sterilization in February, Virginia became the second State to make payments to those who had been harmed by the eugenics laws that were so popular in the early 20th century. Over 30 states forcibly sterilized those they regarded as unfit in order to reduce, as the Virginia Eugenical Sterlization Act of 1924 put it, “the transmission of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, and crime.”

Back in the day, a more charitable but less fashionable figure was heard to ask, “Are there no workhouses?”

The math remains a little dodgy, as Virginia set aside $400,000, which is supposed to be $25,000 for each victim or victim’s estate. Yet reports suggest that some 7,000 Virginians were forcibly sterilized between 1924 and 1979, of whom eleven are known to be still living. If one could identify 7,000 estates, the tab would be more like $175 million. But perhaps it is not so easy to find existing estates of dead persons who were not allowed to reproduce.

In any case, there was bipartisan agreement to belatedly compensate the victims who are still available.

What I find instructive about all this is that it demonstrates once again the bizarre selectivity of our recognition of good and evil, which seems almost to run in cycles. Without in any way wanting to derail compensation for past harms, I can’t help but notice how easy it is to seize the moral high ground on past problems which our present culture recognizes as wrong (bipartisan recognition!), and how hard it is to combat present evils about which the present culture is confused.

That’s a truism, of course. One can hardly expect a united front against the evils about which we are confused.

But it is not just the State. Catholics have noticed the same problem in the Church since John Paul II began apologizing for the Church’s past errors in the 1990s. Again, I have no desire to stop Church leaders from recognizing the past moral failures in which churchmen figured prominently. But once more we see that it is far easier to identify the moral blindness of past cultures than to convince the scions of our present culture of their sins. Since the Church is always populated by persons who are also rooted in the larger worldly culture, the Church’s witness against present evils seldom equals her present witness against past horrors.

There have been moments when I’ve been tempted to shout at both Church and State: “No! Don’t you dare apologize for the evils committed by your predecessors, which are universally recognized today, when you haven’t done all you can to eradicate the very grave evils being perpetrated on your own watch!”

In one sense, apologies for the past sins of others are cheap grace, and we do well to remember that there is no such thing. Still, I know my temptation to shriek is not quite right either.

I’m not sayin’. I’m just sayin’. And perhaps there is nothing more to be said.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 16, 2015 7:25 PM ET USA

    We learn from history or it will repeat. The best thing we can do is learn, make corrections for today and pray that we have learned correctly.