Sterilization in Virginia: Fireships into Hewers and Drawers into Water
In 1883, Sir Edward Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, suggested that "better breeding" would improve the human race. With this pronouncement, the eugenics movement began. The health problems of the poor were attributed to heredity. At the same time, the idea of institutionalization for the mentally ill and retarded gained ground. "Feeble-minded" women were seen as sources of debauchery and moral pollution. The institutionalization and sterilization of such women was recommended to prevent them from having children who, as was believed, would also be mentally disabled and promiscuous.
Virginia, thought to be at the forefront of social work in the late 1800's, was one of the first states to build such an institution--the Virginia Colony for the Feeble-Minded. Hospital and governmental reports contended that the number of "feeble-minded" persons was growing exponentially; this segment of the population was believed to be very fertile. Professionals in medicine and social science linked delinquency, retardation, and promiscuity in women. Led by Aubrey Strode, Dr. Albert Priddy, and Irving Whitehead, authorities in Virginia advocated for the sterilization of institutionalized women. Since they were thought to be unfit mothers, sterilization would reduce overall rates of delinquency. In addition, sterilizing and releasing patients cost the Colony less than keeping them confined. Strode authored bills allowing doctors at mental institutions to provide medical treatment for patients, including surgery, as they saw fit, and Priddy sterilized patients under this law.
The first sterilization case resulting from this practice was Mallory v. Virginia Colony for the Feeble-Minded, a habeas corpus proceeding brought in 1917 to release Nannie Mallory from the Colony. When George Mallory was at work, plain-clothes police officers came to his house where his wife, Willie, children, and two boarders resided. They arrested Willie and his two daughters, Jessie and Nannie, for keeping a disorderly house, and committed them, putting them to work cleaning and caring for children. Willie and Jessie were sterilized and released. Priddy conditioned Willie's release on sterilization. Despite the sterilizations, Priddy continued making efforts to keep Willie and his daughter away from her husband and fiancé. He spoke of Willie as a prostitute, although her husband, boarders, and employer testified to her good moral character. Treating patients as prostitutes made it easier for Priddy and the other workers at the Colony to control them. The petition was granted, and Nannie's commitment was ruled illegal, but Priddy was not held liable for the sterilizations. The dispute, however, led to a reduction in the frequency of sterilizations.
In 1924, a law drafted by Strode specifically authorizing the sterilization of institution patients was passed. Unsure whether courts would uphold the law, he chose a patient for a test case: Carrie Buck. Priddy and his cohorts labeled Buck, who was committed when she was seventeen years old and pregnant, promiscuous and feeble-minded. Her teachers and people from her hometown said she was neither. Buck v. Bell, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Holmes upheld the statute in a three-page opinion in 1927. After Buck v. Bell, the rate of sterilizations increased. Virginia's medical professionals saw the practice as a sign of the state's modernity. Over 750 involuntary sterilizations were performed between 1924 and 1972. Many women were sterilized without their consent. Some did not even know they were being sterilized. In numerous cases, there was no record of retardation or mental illness. The women were sterilized because they were sexually active, and quite likely, poor. The sterilization movement finally came to an end with the 1980 class action suit Poe v. Lynchburg, after which the mental illness provision was excised from Virginia's sterilization law.