One of the skeletons in the Old Dominion State’s closet is the 1924 “Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act,” a law allowing the sterilization of citizens adjudged to be in a long line of mentally deficient idiots. The law was upheld in the infamous 1927 Supreme Court opinion in Buck v. Bell, in which the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, to his undying shame, wrote,
“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…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
So approved, Virginia’s eugenics law lasted into the 1970s, allowing the state to sterilize more than 7,000 people in mental institutions. The law was repealed in 1979, and victims are seeking reparations. Now the ghost of that law is hovering over the resolution of a current case.
The only thing Virginian Jessie Lee Herald has done on his 27 years more than get in trouble with the law is have children: so far he has had seven (with six mothers) and his current wife says she wants more. He recently fled the scene of a car crash with his injured 3-year-old son. Herald pleaded guilty to felony child endangerment, felony hit-and-run, and misdemeanor driving on a suspended license. Investigators who went to his home found his child to have been neglected, with, among other things, shards of glass in his diapers.
A Shenandoah County prosecutor, Illona White, proposed a plea deal that would reduce Herald’s prison sentence to just four years: he would have to agree to a vasectomy. He took the deal, which also requires him to pay for the operation.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:
Is it ethical for a state to make a convicted felon choose between prison time and sterilization?
The Washington Post, in a searing editorial, stated that it was unethical in no uncertain terms, calling it “barbarous” and opining,
“This is outrageous. Mr. Herald is not a sex offender, nor is there a shred of evidence that his criminal behavior derives from the fact that he has fathered seven children. …[There] may be evidence of negligence — hence the charge of child endangerment — but it does not justify depriving Mr. Herald of the ability to father future children. His wife, who wants to have more children with Mr. Herald, said he is a good husband and father. Even if he weren’t, by what right does the state of Virginia wield the power to determine who may have children? Mr. Herald accepted the deal “voluntarily” but only because of the state’s coercion…”
The deal is almost certainly legal, because Herald was given a choice. Judges have wide, indeed ridiculously wide, latitude in concocting sentences. Still, the question remains, is this fair and right, or as the Post suggests, a step down the slippery slope that led to Buck v. Bell?
I am not ready to make a call on this one. Since neglected children often become the responsibility of taxpayers, the argument that the state has no legitimate interest in regulating profligate reproduction by irresponsible parents falls flat. Is taking away someone’s ability to have more children (after seven) really a greater intrusion on his freedom than locking him up? Yet this sentence seems to cross lines that government should cross with caution, if at all. I’m not sorry that Herald won’t be inflicting more of his line on us. I am uneasy, however, with the way this result came about.
Your analysis and enlightenment are solicited.