Author: Elizabeth Catte

Elizabeth Catte is the author of Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia (2021).

Eugenic Sterilization in Virginia

Virginia was a leader in the promotion and practice of eugenic sterilization in the first half of the twentieth century, largely due to the leadership role of the University of Virginia in the eugenics movement. Eugenics was a pseudoscience that promoted the idea that humans could be bred selectively like plants or animals for the betterment of society. Eugenicists believed that mental illness, crime, sexual promiscuity, and poverty were linked to defective genes and that social problems could be ameliorated by limiting the reproduction of genetically undesirable individuals. In Virginia many also believed that white people of European background possessed superior genes that should be protected from interbreeding with African Americans, Native Americans, and people of mixed race, who they held were of inferior genetic stock. In 1924, Virginia passed a compulsory sterilization law intended to limit the reproduction of disabled, poor, and “feebleminded” individuals committed to state hospitals. The peak of eugenic sterilizations in Virginia was between 1933 and 1944, although legal sterilizations continued until the practice was banned in 1972 and a small number of “therapeutic” sterilizations were performed until 1979. It is estimated that approximately 8,000 people were sterilized in the commonwealth between 1927 and 1979. In 2002, Virginia became the first state to issue a formal statement of regret for its past support of eugenics and involuntary sterilization. In 2015, the General Assembly approved a financial compensation program for living survivors of eugenic sterilization that allowed them to claim up to $25,000.