Forcibly sterilizing the ‘unfit’: the U.S. eugenics program you probably haven’t heard of
January 8, 2014 (BreakPoint) - One year ago, two Virginia legislators, Republican Robert G. Marshall and Democrat Patrick A. Hope, introduced a bill that would compensate victims of one of the most terrible violations of human dignity in American history: the forcible sterilization of those deemed to pose a “genetic threat” to society.
A year later, the bill has languished, which given the magnitude of the offense and the advanced age of the victims, only adds insult to an egregious injury.
The 1924 Virginia law was one of many such laws enacted across the country. For those who associated the word “eugenics” with Hitler’s Third Reich, the uncomfortable fact is that much of what the Nazis knew about building a “master race” they learned from the United States.
The attempt to play God sometimes went to absurd lengths: a proposed New York law would have barred marriage between the nearsighted and those with 20/20 vision.
The case that made Virginia the poster-child for apple pie eugenics involved Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old who became pregnant after being, in all likelihood, raped by her adoptive parents’ nephew. Attempting to salvage the family’s reputation, they had Carrie committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.
The colony’s superintendent filed a petition to have Carrie sterilized. In addition to Carrie’s alleged “feeblemindedness,” he cited her mother’s equally-alleged mental retardation and supposed history of “immorality.”
Thus, sterilizing Carrie would nip this particularly noxious plant in the bud before it spoiled the garden.
The Supreme Court agreed. In what were the vilest words ever uttered at the Court since Justice Taney’s declaration in the Dred Scott case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes justified sterilizing Carrie Buck, writing:
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“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.”
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that lawyers defending Nazi doctors at the Nuremberg Trials quoted Holmes’ words and pointed to laws like Virginia’s.
They had a point. Our already-sordid history of eugenics is made all the more so by the fact that it wasn’t until 2002 that then-Governor Mark Warner formally apologized for what he rightly called a “shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.”
But that is not enough. While North Carolina has not only apologized but also compensated its surviving victims, Virginia is dragging its feet. Critics cite the possible cost, which in North Carolina’s case amounted to $10 million.
But the real question is: Can we afford not to compensate these victims? As we said on BreakPoint last summer, eugenics and forcible sterilization have not gone away. Between 2006 and 2010, 150 prisoners in a California women’s prison were sterilized in violation of state and federal law.
The justification in the California action rang a familiar and awful note: the cost of sterilization, they said, was cheap “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children.”
Sadly, we seem even today incapable of resisting the temptation to play God, especially with the vulnerable. Perhaps hitting us where it hurts—in the wallet—will open our eyes.
Reprinted with permission from BreakPoint