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Monday, December 23, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Forced-Sterilization Lawsuits Mount

AP

HUNDREDS of mental patients who were subjected to involuntary sterilization in Canada are seeking justice.

EDMONTON, Alberta - The goal was to improve society's gene pool through forced sterilization, and Alberta authorities pursued the task with zeal and persistence. Now the bill is coming due - in a flood of lawsuits.

Long after eugenics was linked to Nazi master-race ideology and discredited elsewhere in North America, Alberta carried on with a large-scale sterilization program intended to keep the mentally retarded from bearing children.

From 1928 until 1972, when the Sexual Sterilization Act was repealed, more than 2,800 people were sterilized at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta.

$550,000 for one woman

Last January, after six years of legal maneuvering, one of those people won a lawsuit against the provincial government and received compensation of 740,780 Canadian dollars, about $550,000.

That ruling - the first of its kind - has led to claims being filed on behalf of nearly 700 other people subjected to involuntary sterilization by Alberta's Eugenics Board.

Alberta's current government, though it has no direct links to the politicians who oversaw the sterilizations, is taking a cautious approach. It is insisting on a case-by-case review of each compensation claim and has made no offer to negotiate a class-action settlement.

Jon Faulds, a lawyer representing many of the claimants, says he hopes for some type of out-of-court settlement to spare the judicial system a glut of costly, time-consuming individual suits. He also would like to see the government apologize.

Alberta and British Columbia were the only Canadian provinces to have sterilization laws. But only about 400 people were sterilized in British Columbia, which unlike Alberta required that a judge be involved in each decision.

About 30 U.S. states also conducted forced sterilizations in the 1920s and 1930s. The practice generally stopped by the late 1940s amid revulsion over the Nazis' advocacy of selective breeding, although Indiana - which carried out an estimated 2,000 involuntarily sterilizations - continued the practice into the 1960s.

At Alberta's Justice Department, officials are under orders not to discuss the litigation.

But Justice Minister Brian Evans commented briefly in early December, saying his department would be "very open-minded about the whole issue." He stressed that the province was concerned about the potential cost to taxpayers, saying it would be "irresponsible and negligent" not to examine each claim carefully.

The case that triggered the surge of lawsuits dates to 1959, when Leilani Muir, then 14, was sterilized at the Red Deer facility. She was told she was having her appendix removed.

The provincial government, which initially contended it was too late for any compensation claims to be filed for wrongful sterilization, finally conceded there was negligence in Muir's case because her sterilization was based on only one psychological test.

The trial judge, Joanne Veit, denounced the entire operation of the Eugenics Board.

"Members of the board thought it was socially appropriate to control reproduction of `these people,"' the judge wrote. "Irreversible decisions were obviously made on the flimsiest of evidence - without any true scientific evaluation."

When the sterilization act was passed in 1928, it was supported by many prominent Albertans.

The bill's sponsor, Health and Agriculture Minister George Hoadley, was a rancher who felt the genetic lessons he had learned in cattle-raising could be applied to humankind.

"If it is the quantity of production of the human race that is desired, then we don't need this bill," Hoadley said during legislative debate. "But if we want quality, then it is a different matter."

The act established a four-member board to authorize sterilizations of people about to be discharged from mental hospitals. Initially, consent was required from the patient, or a parent or guardian. But after 1937, the consent requirement was dropped in many cases.

Evidence submitted at the Muir trial indicated a disproportionate number of those sterilized were from ethnic minorities and poor families.

`Nobody has right to play God'

Though many claimants are classified as "dependent adults" who cannot make important decisions for themselves, others are self-sufficient, articulate and angry about what happened, Faulds says.

"One of the recurring themes you hear is, `By what right was this done to me?"' the lawyer said. "Leilani Muir said at her trial, `Nobody had the right to play God with me.' When she said that, I think she was speaking for many people."

Muir, who tried for years to have children before learning it was impossible, now lives in British Columbia, working in a store cafeteria.

Not everyone agrees the sterilizations were wrong. At a court hearing in early December, relatives for a half-dozen sterilized people showed up to say they wanted no part of the legal action.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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