Virginia Passes Eugenical Sterilization Act
Eugenics, named for the Greek word meaning “well-born,” is a selective breeding philosophy that seeks to eliminate “undesirable” traits by preventing certain kinds of people from reproducing. Sir Francis Galton developed the term in 1883, and described eugenics as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” As eugenics gained widespread support throughout the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, states began to authorize doctors to forcibly sterilize their patients.
Harry Laughlin, a leader in the eugenics movement, drafted a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that Virginia adopted and enacted on March 20, 1924. The law, which allowed for the forced sterilization of people confined to state institutions as a “benefit both to themselves and society,” was passed on the same day that the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 became law.
The Racial Integrity Act required the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics to record a racial description of every newborn baby, and outlawed marriages between “white” and “non-white” partners. Together, the laws sought to “purify the white race.”
When the Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act in Buck v. Bell in 1927, Virginia’s law became a model for the rest of the country and facilitated the forced sterilization of more than sixty thousand men and women nationwide. Children as young as ten years old were targeted for sterilization. Later, Virginia’s law was co-opted by Nazi Germany and relied upon as precedent for the Nazis’ race purity programs. Though eugenical theory was criticized after World War II, forced sterilization persisted long after in the United States.
Groups targeted and victimized
To Virginians, there seemed to be little difference between the harm to society caused by minorities and the harm caused by undesirable whites. During the time of sterilization, twenty-two percent of those sterilized were African American. This is roughly proportionate to the twenty percent of the total population represented by African Americans. In Virginia, sterilization rates were fairly proportionate to population representation (Dorr 2006, pp. 381-3). For this reason a wide array of individuals became targets for sterilization, specifically “mongrels,” minorities and poor whites. “Mongrels” are those who were considered to be of non-white heritage. In the opinion of Virginia, non-white was defined as any individual with any ancestor of any race but Caucasian, excluding those with 1/16th or less Native American blood. Additionally, institutionalized females who worked outside of the institution were sterilized at a higher rate than others due to their perceived risk of promiscuous interaction with the “normal” public (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, p. 4). After World War II, the numbers of men becoming sterilized increased due to ex-soldiers’ mental problems and alcoholism (Brocato 2008, p. 113).
After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, racist eugenics became more prominent. The 1954 Supreme Court case brought a resurgence of racist eugenics called “Massive Resistance” to prevent desegregation (Dorr 2008, p. 196).
Racist eugenics once again came into discussion with the 1962 and 1964 proposed laws for punitive sterilization of welfare mothers with illegitimate children. There was some fear that African, Far eastern, Indian, and African American populations were expanding far more rapidly than others, and these proposed laws were in part to target such communities (Dorr 2008, p. 196, 211). Even with the voluntary sterilization law, there was some concern that a woman might consent to being sterilized if strongly advised by a physician to do so. This trust in physicians could have given them the power to influence women to undergo sterilization for ultimately eugenic purposes (Dorr 2008, p. 214).
Other restrictions placed on those identified in the law
On March 20, 1924 (the same day as the passage of SB 281, the “Eugenical Sterilization Act”) Virginia signed into law SB 219, the “Racial Integrity Act.” Under this piece of legislation to became “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person” (SB 219, Racial Integrity Act).