People generally associate eugenics (the practice of selective human breeding) with World War II, the Nazis and concentration camps, but the sad and embarrassing truth is that forced sterilization was an all too common practice here in the United States before and after the war. In the 1900s, the Commonwealth of Virginia sterilized close to 8,000 people – in many cases without their knowledge or consent.
As barbaric as it sounds, it was all legal. Under the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, children and young adults who were “unfit or mentally deficient for society” were subjected to forced sterilization so that they would not pass on “undesirable” traits.
Virginia’s law (and those passed in other parts of the country) was based on a document written in 1914 by Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office. He cited a long list of “defective persons” who represented “a menace to society” and were therefore prime candidates for sterilization:
“The law encompassed the ‘feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent’ – including ‘orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.’”
Now, some of the victims of sterilization are coming forward, seeking recognition and reparations. Sadie Ingram and her sister Janet grew up in the foster care system. As young girls they were sent to Central Virginia Training Center (CVTC) in Madison Heights to be sterilized. Sadie recounted her experience:
“I didn’t know what they were gonna do to us. After it was all over, they took me back to my bedroom. I got into bed and I woke up and my stomach was hurting. I said ‘something is wrong with my stomach,’ and I look down there and there was a long cut and it had staples in it.”
Many other children were sent to CVTC for surgery.
As a teenager Lewis Reynolds was hit in the head with a rock resulting in temporary seizures. The doctors at CVTC sterilized him after labeling him an epileptic and therefore unfit to reproduce.
“I think it was wrong for them to take my rights away from me to have a family and grandchildren.”
Obviously the definition of “unfit” is unclear; because Reynolds went on to spend 30 years as a United States Marine.
As for reparations, a precedent does exist for compensating sterilization victims. Last year, North Carolina agreed to pay $50,000 to each of its remaining victims.
Forced sterilization quick Facts.
- In 1907, Indiana became the first state to legalize forced sterilization.
- At one point sterilization laws were on the books in 30 states.
- A 1937 poll in Fortune magazine, found that 66% of respondents supported the sterilization of “mental defectives,” 63% supported sterilization of criminals and 15% opposed sterilization of either.
- Forced sterilizations were being performed in the U.S. as late as 1979.
Watch WSLS’s report on Virginia’s forced sterilization program.
h/t and photo: WSLS.com