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January 11, 2013

by Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

One of the less well-known episodes in Virginia history is its practice of forced sterilization begun during the heyday of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century – a Virginia-based movement that sought to protect the “purity of the American Race”.  Virginia’s legal sterilization program was enacted into law in 1924 – the same year the legislature adopted the Racial Integrity Act that prohibited interracial marriages.
Virginia's Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924 became the model for the nation after it survived constitutional review by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927).  The high court ruled that the state's law allowing forced sterilization of “any patient afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity, imbecility, &c...” for the greater welfare of society did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law.  As a result of this ruling, sterilization rates increased and the categories of people that qualified for sterilization were gradually broadened to include criminals.
Tragically, it is estimated that between 7,200 and 8,300 people were sterilized in Virginia from 1927-1979 because they were deemed by society at the time to be unworthy or unfit to procreate.  In most cases, the individuals were “patients” at state mental institutions who were sent there because of alleged mental illness, physical deformity, “feeble-mindedness,” or simply because they were homeless. Twenty-two percent of the individuals sterilized were African Americans (about equal to the population in the state at the time) and two-thirds were women. Many of those sterilized were not even told they were being sterilized, but instead given some other explanation for their operation.
In hindsight it is hard to fathom how the Supreme Court could have approved this program or how Virginians could have allowed this program to go on for so long – longer than any other state.  Yet, at the time, it was widely believed that the government's control over procreation could cure society's ills, specifically poverty and mental illness.  Additionally, incomplete and faulty science led people to believe that those they were sterilizing were “feeble-minded” by heredity, when in fact they were not.
In an effort to overturn Buck v. Bell, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against Virginia in December 1980 naming four victims of the state's involuntary sterilization program (Poe v. Lynchburg -pdf).  The ACLU sought to have the court declare that the sterilization program violated the victims' constitutional rights and prohibit further sterilizations without informed consent.  It also sought to compel the state to notify all patients that they had been sterilized and to provide medical and psychological assistance at state expense.  The case was ultimately settled in 1985 (pdf) with the Commonwealth agreeing to launch a media campaign to inform victims of their sterilization and to provide counseling services for victims.
Fast forward nearly two decades, and on the 75th anniversary of Buck, then Governor Mark Warner issued a formal apology for Virginia's participation in the eugenics movement.  And last year, marking the 85th anniversary, Del. Patrick Hope called on Virginia to pay reparations to sterilization victims.  This year he has proposed a bill establishing a fund to compensate the victims, House Bill 1529, a bill co-sponsored by Del. Bob Marshall.
We wholeheartedly support the effort to compensate victims of the state's forced sterilization law and hope that, as a society, we can learn from our past so as not to repeat our mistakes.
Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
 

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