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February 09, 2012


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Daniel S. Goldberg

Wonderful post, Al.

I wonder if it might be important to separate the ethical from the practical political issues regarding compensation, which is not to say the latter is unimportant. That is, whether we think a moral obligation exists to compensate victims of the sterilizations conducted under the auspices of the state eugenics program seems to me to be entirely distinct from the pressing practical problem of determining the denominator to whom payments are owed.

I'm an ethicist, so I am biased, but I think the primary question is the determination of whether compensation is owed to a person sterilized (and here issues of "voluntary" and "involuntary" are obviously relevant, although having looked at some of the records, and generally being a scholar whose work focuses on the ways in which larger social, economic, and political factors structure 'choice,' I am dubious as to the true voluntariness of many of these procedures).

Once we have decided this issue, then the very real and very important problem of identifying to whom compensation is owed and how many there may be is relevant. But it would be a terrible mistake, IMO, to permit problems of the latter to vitiate the ethical assessment of the former. Practical problems in locating and ascertaining how many people may have been sterilized do not provide any ethical justification for deciding there is no obligation to compensate at all. This would be a rank instance of the naturalistic fallacy.

Alfred Brophy

Thanks for the kind and thoughtful words, Daniel. Agreed completely that the lack of records or ambiguities in issues of consent should not bar recovery. I also agree, as I suggested in paragraph 5, that "consent" is a difficult issue to even begin to unpack and that a lot of what may appear in the records, such as they are, to be "consent" may not be. Though I believe we need to be clear about what the records permit us to know and that we ought to fully examine them. Part of this process is understanding what happened and why and we should do that now. It may help the case for compensation in many ways; in other ways it may clarify what the appropriate response should be.

I'm glad that people are talking and very much looking forward to the discussion of this, which I guess will take place in the legislature's May session. Hope to hear much more for you, Daniel, in particular.

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