The law can be a tool for justice, and injustice. Starting in 1907, legislators in dozens of states passed laws that made it legal to forcibly sterilize people considered by some doctors and scientists to be“unfit” — because they had committed a crime, had a mental illness or were disabled. Or for a host of other reasons. More than 60,000 children, teenagers, and young adults were sterilized in state hospitals.
A few are still alive. Life of the Law Producer Jess Engebretson reports.
Rose Brooks grew up in the small Virginia city of Lynchburg, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And when she was about six years old, she made a strange discovery: the woman she thought of as her mother was actually her grandmother.
Rose’s mother had died giving birth to her, so the little girl was raised by her grandmother. This setup worked fine, at first. But as Rose got older, so did her grandmother.
RB: She fell and broke her arm and I helped her with that. She was almost 88. And she fell and broke her hip.
Rose’s grandmother was hospitalized. When she recovered, she sat down with her teenage granddaughter to talk about the future.
RB: And she told me her life was kind of getting to the end. But I said no, grandma, you can still walk. She couldn’t take care of me at her age. And I was growing up to be a teenager, I was about 16. And she said she wanted to put me somewhere, and it was at the training school.
The “training school” was The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, a residential program in the outskirts of the city. A social worker had promised her grandmother that Rose would get a good education at the State Colony. But when Rose arrived, the place wasn’t what she’d expected.
RB: We didn’t have a classroom, we didn’t have no teachers there. It wasn’t no education. It wasn’t.
Instead, she was put to work: feeding and bathing other residents, who couldn’t care for themselves.
RB: And we got about two dollars a month. Two dollars. That’s what we got.
The colony was just a few miles outside of Lynchburg. But Rose says it felt like a world all its own.
RB: It’s just like a jail. Every time you go to work, they watch you. If you go anywhere, they watch you. And we had this woman, a nurse over there, had blue hair. She was a mean person. She would always say, “you can’t behave yourself?” But I told her, “yeah, I know how to behave.”
After about a year, one day Rose was called into a meeting. The colony’s head doctor was there, along with some other staff.
RB: Dr Nagler was the head, spoke up and said, “Folks, this woman has to have an operation to keep from having children.”
RB: I said, “I’d love to not have it done.” “But you gotta have it done.” I said, “What?” I said, “I’d rather not.”
Rose says the doctor wouldn’t take no for an answer.
RB: And then they said, “well, everybody in this facility’s got to have it done.” So I went ahead and had it done. He said if I didn’t, I’d never leave there.
Rose wanted very much to leave the State Colony — so eventually, she stopped arguing. At nineteen, she was sterilized, against her wishes.
It was 1960. And a 1924 Virginia law still allowed the state to sterilize people who were considered, quote, “insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded or epileptic,” unquote. Men were given vasectomies, and women were given salpingectomies — the removal of the fallopian tubes. Dozens of other states had passed similar laws, a product of the early 20th century eugenic movement.
PL: The whole idea was to avoid having children who were ill or children who grew up with disabilities.]
This is Paul Lombardo, a scholar who studies the history of eugenics at Georgia State University College of Law.
PL: Eugenics in the first part of 20th c. is really kind of a science, a science of health, a science of good breeding, a science of attempting to eradicate disease and a number of other conditions: poverty, criminality, what was called feeble-mindedness or mental defect. All of these things were thought to be hereditary. So if you were an average person in the US 1915, say, you might very well think that eugenics was a great idea.
It’s hard to fathom how mainstream these ideas were at the time. County fairs hosted “better baby contests” in which children were judged alongside pies and cows and enormous tomatoes. A Chicago politician running for office in 1915 pitched himself as “the eugenic candidate.” And public exhibits warned that “some are born to be a burden to the rest.”
So to many Americans, sterilization laws seemed like a scientific, progressive policy — not all that different from, say, compulsory vaccination. Even the Supreme Court thought so. In 1927, the court heard the case of Carrie Buck, a Virginia woman who contested the state’s right to sterilize her. Writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded that compulsory sterilization was constitutional. Again, Paul Lombardo.
PL: And he said, we often send off our best citizens to war — he was of course talking about himself, he had been shot three different times in the civil war — we often send off the best citizens and ask them to sacrifice their lives. So it wouldn’t be so much to ask of these people — people like Carrie Buck — for what Holmes called a lesser sacrifice, to be sterilized. And in fact, they owe it to us, otherwise we might be swamped with incompetence.
Holmes’ fear of being swamped with incompetence arose from the fact that both Carrie Buck’s mother and her infant daughter had also been judged, quote “feebleminded.” Writing the Court’s majority opinion, Holmes suggested that the Bucks were a tainted family.
Holmes: “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.”
Paul Lombardo’s research has since shown that most of the character witnesses who testified to Carrie Buck’s feeblemindedness hadn’t seen her since she was an infant. And her own defense lawyer was a former chairman of the State Colony’s board. But at the time, the court’s decision was celebrated. Several newspapers around the country ran an article titled “Decision Held; Step Toward a Super Race.”
Newspaper: An improved race of Americans is on its way as a result of the Supreme Court decision upholding the Virginia sterilization law, it was predicted today by government health authorities….“The more unfit rendered sterile, the more rapid will be the development of a race of super-men in America,” said Dr. Claude C. Pierce, Acting Surgeon General of the United States. “The Supreme Court’s decision is a step toward a super race…
That “super race” was, as you might guess, the white race. Virginia’s sterilization law had passed together with a second law, the Racial Integrity Act, which banned interracial marriage. The measures were two sides of the same coin. The Racial Integrity Act was intended to keep whites from marrying people of other races, while the Sterilization Act was meant to keep that white race free of poverty, promiscuity, and disease.
On paper, the sterilization law had due process protections — like pre-sterilization hearings — that were supposed to prevent abuses. But in practice, it didn’t always work that way.
MB: So here is some transcripts from individuals who were sterilized.
This is Mark Bold, a lawyer who runs the Justice for Sterilization Victims Project. Several years ago, he dug up transcripts of sterilization hearings that Virginia had released after a 1981 lawsuit. He read me one in which someone named “Mr Davis” – probably an administrator – leads a sterilization hearing for a woman whose name is redacted.
MB: And so Mr. Davis asks, this is – I’ll just say “Jane Doe” — This is Jane doe, is it? She replies, Yes sir. How old are you? Jane Doe responds, 17. How long have you been here? Around eight months. Are you going to school? I was going but I quit. Do you like the movies? Yes sir. Do you like the funnies? Yes sir. You don’t mind being operated on, do you? No sir. Alright, you can go ahead.
That’s the end of the transcript.
Nineteen years before Rose Brooks was sterilized at the Virginia State Colony, a boy named Lewis Reynolds had been admitted to the same facility. Lewis had been misdiagnosed with epilepsy, and the family doctor told the boy’s father that he’d be better cared for at the Colony.
LR: I didn’t know they was going to operate on me, but they operated anyhow.
Doctors at the State Colony sterilized Lewis at age 13. He didn’t find out what had happened until a doctor told him, years later.
LR: This Navy doctor told me I could have sex all I wanted to but I couldn’t have no children. I was sterilized.
Now a white-haired 87-year-old, he lives alone in a clapboard house not far from where he grew up in Lynchburg.
LR: And I am sorry they done that to me, so I couldn’t have no children. I love children. Whatever happened to me back in my younger days, I wish it never happened.
After he left the State Colony, Lewis joined the Marine Corps. He served in Korea and Vietnam. Eventually, he came home and married a woman named Delores. But he could never bring himself to tell her that he had been sterilized. Delores has since passed away.
LR: She never knew about it. We didn’t have no children, but she didn’t leave me. If I could have had a family, I probably would have had two or three children. I think about that all the time. And sometimes I just cry because the people done me wrong. I cry when I see a lady pregnant, and I know she’s going to have a baby. [clears throat] Excuse me.
After Rose Brooks recovered from her sterilization, she thought she’d be allowed to leave the Colony. But administrators kept her there for eleven more years. When she was released at age 30, she found a job making coffee and cleaning floors at a Howard Johnson’s. Like Lewis Reynolds, she settled in Lynchburg and married. At 75, she’s a sharp dresser with a ready laugh; when we meet, she’s wearing jewelry and bright lipstick. She takes solace in her church community. But the effects of those twelve years at the colony remain with her.
RB: They ruined my life over there. And when I got out, same thing, you just didn’t have a normal life. I forgive people because God told me, but the thing should’ve never happened.
As Rose worked to build a new life, Virginia’s eugenic program continued to sterilize others at the Lynchburg colony — and at five other centers around the state. Paul Lombardo, the legal scholar, thinks that the program’s staying power has to do with the people it targeted.
PL: They were, after all, mostly poor people or people with disabilities — and there was no lobby to say this shouldn’t happen. So the laws stayed in place.
Through the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s…
PL: …it really wasn’t until the civil rights revolution of the 60s and 70s in which there were many cases brought — not about sterilization but about conditions of people in state institutions, whether prisons or mental hospitals. And it was also a result of challenges to reproductive rights that states began to rethink these laws and ultimately to repeal them.
Virginia’s last eugenic sterilizations took place in 1979, according to state records. Nationally, over 60,000 Americans were sterilized under similar laws — most in California, Virginia, and North Carolina. The majority were women, many were disabled, and nearly all were poor.
Over the past five years, a few states have begun to discuss the idea of reparations for survivors of eugenic sterilization. It started with public hearings in North Carolina. Survivors turned out to speak about their experiences, and argued that monetary compensation was only fair. State lawmakers agreed, in principle.
But actually deciding on a number– how MUCH they would pay people – that was tougher. How do you put a monetary value on the biological ability to have a child? Or on having that ability taken away without consent?
MB: North Carolina actually put together a task force…
This is Mark Bold again, the attorney with the Justice for Sterilization Victims Project.
MB: … and through research, and time, and really thinking about what’s just compensation, they came up with $50,000.
In 2013, North Carolina became the first state to offer compensation to victims of its eugenic sterilization program. Meanwhile, Virginia lawmakers proposed a similar bill – but they only offered $25,000 per person. This did not go over well with survivors in Lynchburg.
MB: I asked the victims if they’re satisfied with that. And they felt that it was a slap in the face, that they were saying “you’re half the value of these North Carolinians.” And that was hard for them to swallow – “well, why? What’s the reasoning behind the $25,000 as opposed to $50,000?”
Mark says the group decided not to support the proposal. They hoped that a $50,000 bill would be introduced the next year, and pass. But in 2015, legislators stuck with the original number: $25,000. Some of the survivors felt that the legislature was playing hardball. Lewis Reynolds was one of them.
LR: I think they waiting for everyone to die so they won’t have to give ‘em none. Two people died last year.
It was those deaths that changed things. Many of the survivors started to feel that $25,000 soon was better than the possibility of $50,000 sometime in the future. So the group decided to support the proposal as-is. In 2015, it passed with bipartisan support.
MB: Ultimately, it’s symbolic. I mean, no amount of money is really going to restore what was taken away. But the govt is now acknowledging that what they did was wrong and backing it up with some type of restitution, some type of compensation. And that’s rare for governments to do.
Lewis Reynolds and Rose Brooks both applied for compensation as soon as Virginia began accepting applications, in late 2015. Then they settled down to wait.
LR [singing a hymn]: One day at a time, Sweet Jesus. That’s all I’m asking from you. Just give me the strength to do whatever I have to do. And tomorrow might be never be mine. Show me the way. One day at a time.
In January 2016, Lewis and Rose each received a letter from the commonwealth of Virginia. Inside was a note stating that their claims had been approved — and a check for $25,000.
STERILIZED was reported by Jess Engebretson and edited by Annie Aviles with sound design and production by Shani Aviram. Thanks to Life of the Law’s production team Alyssa Bernstein, Ashley Cleek, Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle, and Jonathan Hirsch for their production and post-production work and to Howard Gelman our engineer. And thanks to Michael Scholar Jr. who helped us by reading historical documents in this episode.
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