Digging Into Virginia's History of Sterilization

Dec 6, 2017

Lulu Miller, former Radiolab producer and co-founder and co-host of Invisibilia on NPR, is currently a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to write her book: Why Fish Don’t Exist, looking at how we categorize the world.  Virginia performed the second-highest number of forced sterilizations in the country, and a chapter in her book focuses on the not-so-old practice of eugenics. WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini reports.

In the 20th century, eugenics included the forced sterilization of people deemed “unfit” by the State – which could mean mental illness but also promiscuity, homosexuality, or even swearing. It was legalized after a Supreme Court ruling following a case in Virginia in the 1930s, and has never been overturned since. Lulu Miller recounts how Mark Bold, while he was a law student at Liberty University, started asking questions about this law.

LULU MILLER: What everybody told him was that it was actually technically in this weird purgatory where it's legal at the Constitutional level, never been overturned, but on a state-by-state basis, every single state had repealed it. So you couldn't really get sterilized because it's not legal at your state - you know.

But he dug further. And then he saw it wasn’t really dead, like in West Virginia for instance. Note that this happened in 2010:

MILLER: He wondered if that might be one of these weird arcane laws that no one actually obeys. So he decided that he would call the circuit clerk's office in Charleston, West Virginia. He invented a fictional daughter who is 22 years-old - so above the age of 21 - and he imagined that she was promiscuous and that she had intellectual disabilities. He took a deep breath, he called them up, and he said he was the father wanting to get her sterilized.

The clerk on the other end of the phone said that he just had to file a motion for sterilization and that the judge would most likely agree to it because, in her words, "they know it needs to be done."

MILLER: He was just shocked and chilled by her tone, just how regular it was.

Mark Bold now runs the Justice for Sterilization Victims Project. Today, many victims are still living. The State of Virginia officially apologized to the victims in 2002, and in 2015 the General Assembly set aside  25,000 dollars for each of them.