In February, Virginia became the second state in the union to legislate in favor of compensating victims of the state’s infamous eugenic sterilization program. The living victims of its state-sponsored forced sterilization are set to be awarded $25,000 following a protracted battle in the legislature. In 2013, North Carolina was the first state to compensate surviving victims, at $50,000 each.
This news of the decision has been welcome relief for Virginia survivors of this program, most of whom are quite elderly and were only teenagers when they were forced to undergo these procedures. “I couldn’t have a family like everybody else does,” stated 87-year-old Lewis Reynolds. “They took my rights away.”
When he was a child, Mr. Reynolds was hit on the head in a tragic accident that resulted in epileptic-like convulsions that lingered for years. Mr. Reynolds ultimately did manage to overcome this affliction and he went on to a 30-year career in the Marine Corps. However, these convulsions were enough for the State of Virginia to classify Mr. Reynolds as a “defective person” when he was a teenager and for the state to order that he be forcibly sterilized under the 1924 Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act without his consent or knowledge.
Lewis Reynolds did not learn that the procedure had been performed until he and his wife went to the doctor to find out why they could not conceive a child.
Virginia’s forced eugenic sterilizations lasted from the passage of the Sterilization Act in 1924 until 1974 – continuing longer than any other state. An estimated 8,300 state-sponsored, forced or coerced sterilizations took place in Virginia during those years. In terms of the number of compulsory or coerced sterilizations during this time period, Virginia is outranked only by California, which forcibly sterilized an estimated 20,000 Californians. More than 30 U.S. states had state-sponsored eugenic sterilization programs in the 20th century. Overwhelmingly, it was the marginalized in society – the poor, the uneducated, the physically or mentally disabled, immigrants, and minorities – who were targeted by these programs.
Virginia’s state-sponsored forced sterilization program was given legal precedence and legitimacy as the result of a notorious 1927 Supreme Court case. The Buck v. Bell case centered on 17-year-old Carrie Buck who was raped and subsequently gave birth to a daughter. The state insisted that Carrie was sexually promiscuous, carried a gene for “feeblemindedness” and was therefore a candidate for sterilization. The fact that she was young, poor, and undereducated made her situation all the more difficult. At her trial, Dr. Albert Priddy testified (referring to the Buck family), “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.”
When Carrie’s 6-month-old baby was found to be “below average” by a sociologist from the Eugenics Records Office, Carrie Buck was ordered to be sterilized by the State of Virginia to prevent her from having any more “defective” children. On appeal, the case went to the United States Supreme Court which ultimately decided with the state rather than with Carrie. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the opinion for the Court in which he stated, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Compensation being offered to the survivors of these heinous programs is a step in the right direction. Other states should be encouraged to follow suit. There is nothing the government can do to make up for the wrongs committed but financial restitution is an acknowledgement of guilt and, at least, an attempt to compensate for the grave injustices and subsequent years of suffering these people have undergone.
Although these forced sterilization programs are now, fortunately, a thing of the past, it is important that this dark period of American history is not forgotten. The eugenic tendency is still a part of modern society, which favors “the planned, the privileged, and the perfect.” While the eugenics laws are gone, the lingering mindset which enabled them must be resisted. If we truly desire to progress as a society, the acceptance and inclusion of all – irrespective of race, wealth, physical or mental ability, or point of development – is the goal towards which we must strive.
Nora Sullivan is an Associate Scholar of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.