buck v bell


Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is at odds with fellow Republicans over whether victims of the state’s involuntary sterilization program 50 years ago can sue the state for compensation.

The state’s top lawyer released a legal opinion recently that said the state can’t be sued in its own courts and therefore “it is unlikely that a claimant could successfully bring an action against the commonwealth for having been sterilized.”

That runs afoul of Republican lawmakers, who were pushing legislation earlier this year that would give $50,000 to each of the victims of a state eugenics program — at a total cost of $15.5 million. But lawmakers killed the bill, saying eugenics victims can sue the state so there’s no need to offer them payments. Cuccinelli’s opinion that they can’t sue revived prospects for the bill.

“I don’t want to disagree with the attorney general,” said Del. John O’Bannon, R-Richmond. “There’s something inconsistent here.”

A Supreme Court ruling a half-century ago allowed states to sterilize mentally ill men and women to prevent them from reproducing. In what is now considered a dark period in Virginia history, the state sterilized about 7,300 people against their will between 1924 and 1979.

Dels. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, and Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, proposed compensating the victims of eugenics during the General Assembly session earlier this year. But the plan died in a House subcommittee.

Just out of curiosity, how do we know it was against their will?  How do we know their opinion?  Did the writer mean to say without their permission?  Was something similar done to the mentally challenged?  Did they have a guardian?  Did the guardian give permission?

According to Wikipedia, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 allowed  this form of eugenics in Virginia:

The Sterilization Act provided for compulsory sterilization of persons deemed to be “feebleminded,” including the “insane, idiotic, imbecile, or epileptic.”[2]

These two laws were Virginia’s implementation of Harry Laughlin‘s “Model Eugenical Sterilization Law”,[3] published two years earlier in 1922. The Sterilization Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927). This had appealed the order for compulsory sterilization of Carrie Buck, who was an inmate in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and her daughter and mother.

As horrified as we are today, eugenics was a fairly common practice under many different guises during that time period.  In many cases, it wasn’t quite as draconian as it sounds today.  Many social reformers wanted to create a happier, more productive society that was free of some of the afflictions they felt were preventable.  Today we tend to associate this type of social engineering with Nazis.  I suppose I am suggesting that the intent wasn’t as evil as it sounds.  Today we are horrified at such practices.   Something I can forgive in the 1920’s should not have gone on until 1979!  Additionally, as shown above, the sterilizations weren’t just performed on the mentally ill.

As to the Cuccinelli ruling, Bob Marshall v. Ken Cuccinelli?  Hmmmmmmm…..can we just let them duke it out?

Additional Info:

A State Marker was erected at the intersection of Grady and Preston Avenues in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Inscription on the State marker:

 In 1924, Virginia, like a majority
of states then, enacted eugenic sterilization laws. Virginia’s law allowed state
institutions to operate on individuals to prevent the conception of what were
believed to be “genetically inferior” children. Charlottesville native Carrie
Buck (1906–1983), involuntarily committed to a state facility near Lynchburg,
was chosen as the first person to be sterilized under the new law. The U.S.
Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, on 2 May 1927, affirmed the Virginia law. After
Buck more than 8,000 other Virginians were sterilized before the most relevant
parts of the Act were repealed in 1974. Later evidence eventually showed that
Buck and many others had no “hereditary defects.” She is buried south of here.


4 Thoughts to “Cuccinelli says state can’t be sued for forced sterilizations”

  1. Ray Beverage

    “Just out of curiosity, how do we know it was against their will? How do we know their opinion? Did the writer mean to say without their permission? Was something similar done to the mentally challenged? Did they have a guardian? Did the guardian give permission?”

    I would say the writer was not wrong….when it came to Intellectual or Developmental Disability, throughout history many were simply locked up either in a prison (most often in Europe) or a State Hospital/State Facility. Back in the days of forced sterilization, either the parent/family member turned the person over to the State, or the Sheriff came to the door and picked them up so the procedure could be done. And depending upon your social status, you either had the person returned to you, or as in the case of the more “elite society”, the individual was “put away” so as not to be an embarassment. Probably the most known example of the “elite” – although not a forced sterilization – was the Kennedys with Rosemary Kennedy being born with an intellectual disability (back then called “mental handicapped”), and since a lobotomy was the medical answer, and she was later placed in an institution.

    Rosemary is an example of the times in terms of the “rights” of the disabled. Individual rights which exist today for those with ID or DD really did not start being in place till the 1980s when State Hospitals were begun to be closed nationally. The Olmstead Decision of 1999 has finally brought about furthering the rights of the ID and DD most notably here in Virginia with the DOJ Settlement Agreement to close the Virginia Training Centers.

    As for Guardians to protect their rights, back then in many places, the person was made a “Ward of the Court”, and the Court could order it. Guardianship to protect their rights is only really in the last two decades in the States. The Code of Virginia was changed in 1997 for the Public Guardian & Conservator Program in order to protect the disabled and the frail.

    In my view, the writer got it write. Persons back then did not have a choice as no one asked the person for their opinion IF the person had the cognitive ability to understand. Today at least there are now laws in place affording the protection, or to have a competent Guardian.

  2. Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose also underwent a lobotomy. She was the model for “The Glass Menagerie” and he wrote about lobotomy in “Suddenly Last Summer.” He died in the early 80s — she lived to be 86 and his estate took care of her.

    Aren’t many of those in the general assembly lawyers who would have seen the attorney general’s opinion coming? Or is that the point, to delay any kind of pay out?

  3. How many of those people are still alive? I am not sure it is a wise precedent to set. There are all sorts of past sins of the state. Are we going to pay every gay arrested? Every couple who were of mixed race? How about Indians who were run off lands? Where does the list end?

    How does one set a price on sterilization?

  4. Ray Beverage

    “How many of those people are still alive?”

    In Virginia, the estimate was around 1,500….nationwide it is around 65,000. The oldest is probably 89, and the youngest probably 39. North Carolina also was trying to do the same bill this year, and their estimate is somewhere between 1,350 to 1,800.

    Can’t really put a price on sterilization, or for that matter, all the various wrongs done. As for the Indians run off lands, you might have to be specific about the Tribe as several have won landmark lawsuits in reclaiming their lands (most notably up in Maine).

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