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Eugenics in Virginia

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VPM News Focal Point
Multimedia Journalist Billy Shields interviews eugenics historian and law professor Paul Lombardo.

In the early 20th century, many doctors, scholars and lawmakers supported the practice of forced sterilization to prevent people of color and the poor and disabled from having children.

We speak to legal scholar and bio-ethics historian Paul Lombardo about a Virginia woman who was medically sterilized, how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her case, and what that decision could mean for reproductive rights today?


BILLY SHIELDS: Eugenics is the idea that humans can improve future generations genetically by controlling who gets to have children and who does not. This forced sterilization, targeted people of color and those with mental and physical disabilities. Here to talk with us about Virginia's historical role in promoting this practice is legal scholar Paul Lombardo. Thank you for joining us. I was wondering if you could maybe go over what your area of specialty is and some of the latest research that you've done.

PAUL LOMBARDO: Well, I'm a historian of Eugenics who happens to teach in law school. I have been studying since about 1980 in the field of eugenics, but I teach in the college of Law at the Georgia State University in Atlanta. And I teach courses like the legal history of Eugenics along with bioethics and other topics. But I spent about 22 years in Virginia, and that's when I really became interested in the history of Virginia's eugenic sterilization program and related topics. I continue to write about those topics now as they relate to both to history and to current events.

BILLY SHIELDS: What's the rationale behind the whole Carrie Buck situation if you could explain that?

PAUL LOMBARDO: Well, the Carrie Buck story, of course, is the story of a young woman who eventually was sterilized under a Virginia sterilization law that was passed in 1924. She was alleged to be somehow, quote, defective. That's what they called her. They said she was a moral delinquent because she'd had a baby, but she wasn't married. And so, she was sent to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptics and the Feebleminded and subjected to that law after a lengthy court case that went up to the Supreme Court of the United States. And of course, Carrie was, in that case, designated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous justice, as one of, quote, three generations of imbeciles. Holmes said three generations of imbeciles are enough. And that really kind of captures the motive force behind that part of the eugenics movement, which was to eliminate people who were considered to be somehow inferior mentally or physically disabled, or in Carrie's case, poor as well.

BILLY SHIELDS: UVA played an outsized role in the promotion of eugenics as a concept. Explain UVA's role in this in the American South, and is this something, as an alumnus yourself, is this something that the university has acknowledged?

PAUL LOMBARDO: Well, UVA was like most universities at the time, and I think it's not very difficult to find, in almost every major university in the country, teaching about eugenics, people who were involved in the movement. And in UVA's case, there were very important people like the Dean of the Medical School, Harvey Jordan, who was one of the real leaders in the eugenics movement, and a number of other faculty members there too. There's a fine book on this topic by Gregory Dorr called "Segregation's Science," which outlines all those people. I think that what you would discover if you looked at the curriculum there was the people at UVA were taught about eugenics as they were at most other colleges in the United States. And they were really involved through faculty members in the active parts of the movement. Everything from immigration restriction legislation, to eugenic sterilization laws, to the laws that separated people by race. Each of those was pressed by the eugenics movement and a leadership role was played by people on the faculty there at UVA.

BILLY SHIELDS: How did eugenics, as it was practiced in the Commonwealth of Virginia, differ between different races of people?

PAUL LOMBARDO: Well, eugenics was primarily, at the earliest stages, focused on people in institutions. And so if you were in an institution like the Western State Hospital at the time, called the Western State Asylum, or the Madison Heights Lynchburg Colony, which was a place for people who had epilepsy or were designated as feebleminded were sent, you were subject to being sterilized if you were in those places and if you were found to be somehow hereditarily defective. It turns out in the earliest years of those places they were segregated. And so, if you were a person of color, you probably weren't there. It really required you to be at other institutions, Central State Hospital in Petersburg, for example, which was run as a Black institution after the Civil War, and then later the so-called Colony at Petersburg as well. The laws, though, that had the earliest impact on of people of color in Virginia that had a eugenical tinge, apart from the sterilization laws, were the laws that reinforced very, very old taboos, and in some cases, colonial-era laws prohibiting people of different races from being married. And so, there's a famous case that comes out of Virginia called Loving Versus Virginia, which everyone is aware of, which decided by the Supreme Court in 1967 finally strikes down this eugenically-tinged law which was meant to prevent people of different races, primarily prevent whites from marrying people of other races.

BILLY SHIELDS: What happened in Virginia, even though the Supreme Court listened to Carrie Buck's situation, the law has changed. But the Supreme Court never struck anything down. Plessy versus Ferguson comes out and Brown v Board of Education strikes it down. How could it play out in the future?

PAUL LOMBARDO: It's a fascinating question right now because the Supreme Court has essentially decided to remove the precedent of Roe v Wade, which put boundaries around what states could do in controlling the reproduction of citizens. Now that's gone. There's still Griswold versus Connecticut, which allows people to get birth control, but there are at least one Justice who says he wants to get rid of that and several others who've hinted the same way. So, what I have written before, related to Buck in other cases, is that Buck was a precedent cited by the Supreme Court in Roe for the proposition that that reproductive rights were not unlimited, that there were certain things that states might still do. Buck remained in place, that was 1973, but remains in place now. And depending on which argument you're following, the Supreme Court says we're going to leave all this up to the states. It'll be up to states to decide these rules. Well, I don't have any indication that any states are planning to do this, although they certainly, if that were the case, could decide to reenact sterilization laws or other kinds of laws that would simply reduce reproductive prerogatives in the citizens. So that's the open field. Buck was never overturned, primarily because after 1980, in which a federal case was brought there in Virginia, really focusing on the relatives, the sister of Carrie Buck and several other people who had been sterilized in the Colony, and those people said, "We want to attack this case. We think we were wrongly sterilized." And the federal court said, "Well, no that was a Supreme Court precedent and that's what we followed. And so, you didn't, you can't overturn that without going up the line." That case didn't go anywhere after that. And so, the precedent stands. And until a state or some individual brings a case to challenge a law under which they're sterilized, it's very unlikely that that case will be overturned.

BILLY SHIELDS: Professor Paul Lombardo thank you so much for your time, sir.

PAUL LOMBARDO: Thank you, Bill.


Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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