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"Human weeds'

Raymond Hudlow won three honors in World War II _ the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Prisoner of War medal. The star is his favorite.

"It shows that I fought in a battle," he said.

Hudlow is 76. When he was 17, he was a patient at the Lynchburg State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, where doctors deemed him a "moron."

To the state, that meant he shouldn't have children. Against his will, its doctors performed surgery to make sure he never could.

"How would you like them to come and take your children away from you?" he said. "The state doesn't have the power to do that. God says you will produce children and multiply. And I can't multiply."

With no teeth and slicked-back silver hair, Hudlow lives on a gentle hill outside Lynchburg, in a trailer next to a man-made lake. The trailer is cluttered with a box of newspapers, four clocks and dozens of ceramic figures _ Virgin Marys, cats, frogs. On his dining room table, an inhaler sits atop a box of Marlboros.

He wants to be buried in an Army uniform, with his medals on.

He is shouting now. "I ain't no moron. A man's got to have a level head to fight. He's got to know what he's doing."

They were hemophiliacs and hobos, the physically deformed and the diabetic, manic-depressives and the mentally retarded _ 60,000 of them, almost all poor, rural, white, uneducated and young. Some were as young as 8 years old.

They had one more thing in common: The government despised their kind. They were considered "manifestly unfit" to give birth, so 35 states forcibly sterilized them.

This was the linchpin of eugenics, the science of weeding out "unfit" citizens to create a better breed of men and women. It started in 1907 and was a full-fledged movement by the 1920s. Luminaries from President Theodore Roosevelt to birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger embraced it. So did the U.S. Supreme Court. So did Nazi Germany.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Nazis ordered 375,000 people sterilized. At the Nuremberg Trials, they pointed to U.S. laws as their inspiration.

Forced sterilizations continued in the United States as recently as 1979. The most outrageous rhetoric of eugenics has largely vanished, but debates over similar issues still bubble. Should we genetically engineer children? How do we navigate the minefields of the human genome project? Should we clone humans?

Victims of eugenic sterilization and their advocates say such nettlesome questions infuse their message with a 21st century urgency and relevance.

"It's a cautionary tale about how the excitement of the good things we take from science can't blind us to the downside," said Paul Lombardo, a University of Virginia professor who has studied the U.S. eugenics movement.

"History tells us that it's the most socially vulnerable among us who are abused when we act on these theories, and they become social policies."