Friday, January 25, 2008

On January 25, ...

... 1882, Adeline Virginia Stephen was born in London. She grew up in a literary household -- her father was an editor who once had been married to the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, author of the novel Vanity Fair. After studying at Kings College she became part of the Bloomsbury Group. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf and took his surname to become Virginia Woolf (right). Under that name she would write many novels and other works. Personal favorite: her 1929 essay "A Room of One's Own," "a discussion of women’s writing and its historical economic and social underpinning." Afflicted with psychiatric disorders throughout her life, she died in 1941, drowning herself in a river near her country home.
... 1996, a judge in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, awarded a judgment of $750,000 to Leilani Muir, 50, whom the province's Eugenics Board had sterilized without her knowledge in 1959. Having spent her early life in foster homes, the orphan Muir was placed at age 10 (below right) in the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, where she was "declared a "moron"" -- as it turned out, a false diagnosis -- "and approved for sterilization." Then a teenager, Muir was told the surgery was for removal of her appendix; only later in life did she learned she had been sterilized. Her successful lawsuit opened the door to many more such actions. This Alberta heritage website elaborates on the extent of the province's sterilization program during the 20th century:

Many thousands of people endured similar experiences under Alberta's Sterilization Act. In 1928, Alberta became one of two provinces and twenty-eight states in North America to pass such legislation. The Act was based on the principals of eugenics, meaning "good birth". It was believed that if only those people with desirable genes bore children, the human race as a whole would improve. The Alberta government and pressure groups including the United Farm Women of Alberta sought to limit the reproduction of many kinds of people, including visible minorities and the "feeble-minded". They attributed much of the rise of crime, poverty, alcoholism and other vices to these people.
Almost 3 000 people were sterilized under Alberta's Sterilization Act. Many more were not released because they would not consent to sterilization. Even in 1972, the year the Act was finally repealed, fifty-five people were sterilized for their "danger of transmission to the progeny of mental deficiency" and for being "incapable of intelligent parenthood".

For readers in the United States, the case calls to mind the similar challenge that Carrie Buck (left) brought before the Supreme Court in 1927. Her unsuccessful suit prompted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to comment on behalf of 8 of the Court's 9 Justices: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

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