Many Vermonters would be stunned to learn that some eighty years ago, our legislature passed a law enabling the sterilization of Vermonters who had been determined to be “undesirables,” people from targeted groups that included Abenakis and French Canadian immigrants. The 1931 sterilization law was designed to reduce the number of people seen as placing demands on public services and to purify what University of Vermont zoology professor Henry Perkins, a national leader in the eugenics movement , called “the fine old stock of original settlers in Vermont.” The sterilization law came shrouded in rhetoric about improving the lives of the poor, but revealed an agenda of ethnic discrimination that authorized the sterilization of an untold number of people identified by the Vermont Eugenics Survey as “defective.”
Although the Vermont Legislature attempted to correct its past errors by passing a joint resolution in 2010 expressing regret for this dark chapter in Vermont’s history, we have now embarked on a new era of eugenics under Act 39. In a culture that too often devalues the lives of those with serious illnesses and disabilities as “not worth living,” the Legislature has effectively codified a means to discriminate against these populations. Indeed, a new, and narrow vision for Vermont is emerging, propelled by an economically privileged coalition of well-funded activists, determined to get what they want regardless of whom it may hurt. Though their campaign is cloaked in words like “compassion” and “choice”, it is an odd sort of compassion that proposes killing the sufferer as a way to relieve suffering, and that threatens true choice for the most vulnerable.
Sadly, as evidenced by last week’s Senate vote, our present Legislature seems obstinately unable to connect the dots between the mentality of privilege that underpinned the eugenics movement of the 1930s and the modern-day assisted-suicide movement. The small but powerful band of death activists who succeeded in passing this very dangerous legislation, have seemingly hypnotized a majority of legislators into thinking they are doing good instead of harm—harm that is potentially irreparable.
Physician assisted suicide is at the top of a slippery slope that will move from “choice to die” to “duty to die,” and enable the elimination of people who have been deemed dispensable, burdensome and too expensive to care for in our society. We must be clear: If any one person is vulnerable because of age, illness, disability or financial need, then we are all vulnerable. Will future generations look back on this age and cry foul, as we have decried the Vermont sterilization movement of the 20th century? If we do not speak up for the terminally ill and the disabled now, who will speak for us when our time comes?
No “joint resolution” will ever be able to bring back the dead.