Sterilized: What Virginia and Nazi Germany Had in Common

Virginia would be the second U.S. state to offer payments to sterilization victims.

Lewis Reynolds, left, was sterilized at what is now known as the Central Virginia Training Center in Madison Heights, Va., when he was a teenager. Sarah Wiley, right, was sterilized at the same facility when she was 23.

Lewis Reynolds, left, was sterilized at what is now known as the Central Virginia Training Center in Madison Heights, Va., when he was a teenager. Sarah Wiley, right, was sterilized at the same facility when she was 23.

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A Nazi Template

A run of sterilization statutes like Virginia's began with Indiana's first-in-the-nation law in 1907 and culminated in 1937 with Georgia's approval of the practice. The earliest laws were measures that focused on men and aimed to cut down on hereditary criminals, Lombardo says.

"It was about sex, really," he says. "They were concerned that men were sexually deviant, that the men in prison were. Some of the laws were written specifically to focus on sex criminals."

But the scope of the laws expanded to include those suffering from physical and mental maladies, with the goal of curbing their traits and costs of care by prohibiting their progeny. Many sterilizations were ordered after hearings in which individuals were coerced into agreeing to the procedure, often without a full understanding of what it entailed.

In 1927, the Supreme Court's 8-1 ruling in Buck v. Bell – in which the justices ruled that an unwed Virginia mother named Carrie Buck could be sterilized – gave states enhanced authority to perform the procedure on those in their care.

"It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind," Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the court's opinion.

Holmes' opinion also includes the line, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough" – a nod to Buck, her mother and Buck's illegitimate child all being deemed feebleminded. Buck was sterilized at the same facility where Wiley and Reynolds would be operated upon years later. Her daughter, Vivian – reportedly the product of rape – later made the honor roll in elementary school.

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America's moves toward removing undesirables also caught the eye of others. While the Germans already had an interest in eugenics, America served as a legislative mentor for the Nazis, who in 1933 passed a statute that leaned on a model sterilization measure written by an American named Harry Laughlin and used by numerous U.S. states.

"When Hitler came into power, the very first law that they passed was a sterilization law and they explicitly said that it was modeled on various measures in the United States," Lombardo says. "Before the most outrageous things happened with the Holocaust, there is a lot of openly declared admiration between German eugenicists and Americans."

Laughlin received an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1936. In a perhaps lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust, the Nazis sterilized more than 350,000 people.

Adolf Hitler, meanwhile, let his admiration for America's efforts be known.

"Now that we know the laws of heredity, it is possible to a large extent to prevent unhealthy and severely handicapped beings from coming into the world," Hitler said, according to a former confidant whose account is cited in Stephen Trombley's 1988 book, "The Right to Reproduce: A History of Coercive Sterilization." "I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock."

Money Matters

Marshall, known as a staunch conservative, says he first became interested in the sterilization issue after watching a film about the Nuremberg Trials in which an attorney for a Nazi defendant referenced the Buck v. Bell decision.

Marshall says he was in disbelief.

"I thought, 'Man, if ever I could do something about that I would,'" Marshall says. "And now here I'm in a position, I'm in Virginia, I'm a legislator, and maybe we can undo this to some extent."

Marshall partnered with Del. Patrick Hope, a Democrat, to form a political odd couple and attempt to provide payments for sterilization victims.

"Bob Marshall and I agree on almost nothing," Hope says. "The color of the sky would be a debate between us."

Virginia in 2002 became the first state to officially apologize for its sterilization practices, with then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, calling eugenics "a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved."

Correction 01/28/14: The former name of the Central Virginia Training Center was misidentified in the photo caption.