THEORIES OF RELATIVITY

DESPERATE TO KNOW WHERE HE CAME FROM, GREG WIATT PERFORMS ANCESTRAL MANEUVERS IN THE DARK.PIECES OF ME GREG WIATT SUSPECTED HERB WIATT WASN'T HIS REAL FATHER. HE WAS HORRIFIED WHEN HE FOUND OUT WHY.

In July 1991, he says, he was in Florida on vacation when he suddenly got the urge to see the place where his genetic father had spent most of his adult life, and to learn what he could about the man. He drove north to Virginia and checked into an old motel in Blacksburg.

He spent the next two days looking through the town library's newspaper clippings and the university archives. They were laden with the accomplishments of Professor Kroontje. He had been a community and academic leader, and the founder of one of the largest nonprofit retirement communities on the East Coast. (Kroontje declined to comment for this story and referred Westword to his lawyer; his lawyer did not return telephone calls.)

When Greg had read and copied as much information as he could find, he got in his car, prepared to leave town.

"I didn't intend to make contact," he says. "I just wanted information. But as I was driving out of town, I saw a telephone booth and decided, `What the heck,' and pulled over to call the guy."
Without saying who he was, Greg invited himself over to the house of the professor. "He probably thought I was a former student or an old colleague who wanted to pay his respects," he recalls.

He drove to the retirement community the professor had started and pulled up to a modest townhome. A tall, blue-eyed man, his blond hair turned to white, emerged from the front door as Greg approached with his hand outstretched.

"I told him, `I just wanted to shake your hand,'" Greg recalls. "But he kind of looked at me like he was trying to jog his memory. He asked, `Do I know you?'"
"I just said, `Lincoln, Nebraska,' but he shook his head. He knew a lot of people in Lincoln, but nobody my age."
Then Greg mentioned the doctor's name. "His eyes got wide and his face was pale," he says. "He looked like he had seen a ghost.

"So I just grabbed his hand and said, `I just wanted to shake your hand and thank you for the gift of life.' I didn't wait for a reply. I just walked back to my car and drove away."

During the 1950s and 1960s, institutionally based sterilization programs ended in many states and diminished in the rest. The 1970s marked a period in which the pendulum swung toward the protection of the rights of the mentally retarded and the mentally ill to make decisions, when capable, regarding their bodies.

In 1972 the Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the sterilization programs at state institutions such as Beatrice. In 1975 the Colorado legislature passed a law prohibiting the sterilization of mentally retarded persons over eighteen without their consent. To ensure that the consent was given voluntarily and with full knowledge of what the procedure entailed, the statute required the appointment of a psychologist or psychiatrist, as well as an expert in the field of mental retardation, to oversee each case.

In 1978 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that no minor child could be sterilized without a lawyer being appointed to serve as an advocate for the child, and without clear and convincing medical evidence that the child's health would be otherwise endangered. The case was followed by another in which the court determined that the same protections applied to the mentally ill and mentally disabled.

As recently as 1991, the Colorado legislature further strengthened protections for the mentally retarded and mentally ill, including their right to seek sterilization if they so chose.

Nevertheless, the idea of sterilization as a quick means of dealing with complex social issues "has remained a surprisingly persistent idea among a strong, but minority, voice," says author and physician Philip Reilly.

There is no validity to the idea that criminal behavior or poverty is linked to genetics, says Reilly. "So far, such things seem to be more related to environment and opportunity," he says. And although there are genetic ties between some forms of mental retardation and mental illness, Reilly says research indicates that sterilization would have a minimal impact on the frequency of these conditions.

Some sterilization proposals have come to target new groups: welfare mothers and prison inmates. In 1981 a Texas legislator asked his constituency whether they favored sterilization for women on welfare. They voted yes by a 3-2 margin. In Maryland, in the early 1980s, legislation was introduced to make welfare payments to women with two or more illegitimate children contingent upon the mothers' sterilization. It failed by a thin margin.

In 1993 the Colorado legislature considered a bill in which mothers on public assistance would receive $300 in exchange for agreeing to birth control implants. That portion of the bill was eliminated after extensive lobbying by the Colorado Catholic Conference. "It was offering impoverished women cash not to reproduce, and we felt that was morally wrong," says Doug Delaney, director of the conference and its chief lobbyist.

This session, Delaney is fighting another piece of legislation: Representative Jerke's proposal regarding state prisoners. Jerke, a LaSalle farmer, wants to offer prison inmates seven days off their sentences if they agree to be sterilized. The number of days, Jerke says, was arrived at by figuring the cost of surgery against the $50 per day it takes to house prisoners.

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