Involuntary Sterilization in Virginia: From Buck V. Bell to Poe V. Lynchburg

By Lombardo, Paul A. | Developments in Mental Health Law, July-September 1983 | Go to article overview
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Involuntary Sterilization in Virginia: From Buck V. Bell to Poe V. Lynchburg


Lombardo, Paul A., Developments in Mental Health Law


The arrival of 1984 will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the passage of Virginia's pioneer statute authorizing involuntary sexual sterilization. (1) Although ten years have passed since the last vestiges of the 1924 law were deleted from the Virginia Code, its impact on the lives of the state's citizenry continues to be felt. During the sixty years that it remained in force, the Virginia Statute for Eugenical Sterilization gave a legal imprimatur to over 8,300 operations. When the first and most notorious of those sterilizations was approved by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Buck v. Bell (2), the stage was set for the passage of similar legislation in twenty-five other states. It has been estimated that more than sixty thousand people were sterilized in America under the authority of such laws.

The Virginia law also had an international impact. Certainly the most dramatic example can be found in Adolph Hitler's "Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases. That 1933 German decree contained language that echoed phrases in the Virginia statute. In only ten years, some two million Europeans underwent forced sterilization as part of the Nazi program. (3)

The irony of the transatlantic sterilization connection was underlined it! the screenplay of Judgment at Nuremberg, which portrays Wilhelm Frick. the Nazi legal administrator, citing the precedent of Buck v. Bell in his own defense during the war crimes trial. The dramatic representation was not without historical foundation. In 1936 Henry Laughlin had received an honorary medical degree from the Nazi controlled University of Heidelberg for his contributions to the "science of race cleansing." Laughlin was the author of the model law after which both the Virginia and German sterilization laws were fashioned, (4) and he supplied important testimony in favor of sterilization at the trial of Carrie Buck

While its links to the Holocaust provide us with one reason to review the history of Virginia's now defunct sterilization law, it is also appropriate because litigation stemming born the sterilization era continues in the 1980 case of Poe v. Lynchburg Training School and Hospital. (5) That case has revived allegations of abuses endured by Virginians in state facilities who were "treated" under the provisions of the sterilization law. Some of the more noteworthy revelations surfacing during the Pod suit have focused upon the archaic language that had survived in Virginia law and, as late as the 1970s. was used as the basis to describe mentally disabled patients and to mark them for sterilization.

The language highlighted in Poe has been traced to the original 1924 sterilization law, which provided for sterilization of all residents of state facilities for the mentally ill or mentally retarded who were afflicted with inherited "defects." Specifically covered were patients with "hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeblemindedness or epilepsy ... and by the laws of heredity ... the probable potential parents of socially inadequate offspring likewise afflicted...." (6)

Such were the explicit pronouncements of Virginia law on the uses of sterilization to combat inherited defect. The Poe case has renewed the challenge to the practice of involuntary sterilization and has questioned again the "scientific" assumptions upon which Virginia law had been based.

Although the language quoted above offends contemporary sensitivities, historical research suggests that it was the order of the day during the era when Virginia's sterilization act was passed. Those who argued for sterilization as an early brand of genetic engineering stood in the vanguard of social reform, convinced of the progressive values embodied in their reproductive politics. A review of the public positions of a few of the earliest champions of sterilization in Virginia can help us understand the social and political values that were reflected in the sterilization law.

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