Lord God, during this Lenten season, teach us to come before you in humility, lamenting the signs that your kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. Help us to acknowledge our finitude and failings, and guide us into a journey of remembering rightly, repenting honestly, and responding faithfully. We long for the coming of your mosaic kingdom in Jesus Christ, our Lord, and invite your Holy Spirit to lead us now.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY: MARCH 20, 1924
Eugenical Sterilization Act
On March 20, 1924, Virginia SB 281, the “Eugenical Sterilization Act,” was signed into law. Under the Eugenical Sterilization Act, individuals confined to state institutions “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy” could be sterilized. Sterilization in Virginia occurred under the authority of state law between 1924 and 1979, continuing such sterilizations longer than any other state.
According to a University of Vermont study on Eugenics, the white, Virginia elite of the time was immersed in the idea of perpetuating and protecting the purity of the “American race” (i.e., Anglo-Saxon Whites). Those who were socioeconomically elite wanted to maintain their “traditional Southern identity” while also embracing modernity and progressive ideology. The eugenic movement offered an avenue to pursue both of these notions simultaneously. By presenting eugenics as a form of progressive science and ideology, Virginians were able to modernize their identity while upholding the purity of their state through the coerced sterilization of minorities and undesirable whites alike. Often, “mongrels” and “worthless” whites were collected in “mountain sweeps.” This involved a sheriff driving into mountain villages and forcibly taking individuals and relocating them to institutions where they could only be released upon submission to sterilization. More often than not, these individuals were unaware of the consequences of the procedures that they underwent.
In total, 7325 individuals were sterilized in Virginia under its sterilization law. Of those sterilized about half were deemed “mentally ill” and the other half deemed “mentally deficient.”
Though this history is largely unknown, compulsory programs estimate that more than 65,000 individuals in more than 30 states were sterilized under state mandates, and the number is likely much higher. As early as 1907, the United States had instituted public policy that gave the government the right “to sterilize unwilling and unwitting people.” Other laws that were similar to Law 116 soon passed in 30 states. These policies listed the insane, the “feeble-minded,” the “dependent,” and the “diseased” as incapable of regulating their own reproductive abilities, therefore justifying government-forced sterilizations. Legitimizing sterilization for certain groups led to further exploitation, as group divisions were made along race and class lines.
Women of color have always been at the center of these efforts. For example, Latina women in Puerto Rico, New York City, and California were specifically targeted by the government for sterilization throughout the 20th century. A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican residents found that about one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers, ages 20-49, were sterilized. To put this figure in context, women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico in the 1960s were more than 10 times more likely to be sterilized than women from the United States.
Instituting similar practices to those experienced in Puerto Rico, as many as 25% of Native American women between 15-44 years old were sterilized by the 1970s. In the early 1970s, two Cheyenne girls in Montana entered an IHS hospital, on two separate occasions, for emergency appendectomies. While sedated the physicians sterilized both girls, without consent from the patients themselves, nor from their parents.
Black women have also long been the targets of population control and have been disproportionately affected by sterilization abuse. In North Carolina, a state noted for its discriminatory sterilization practices in the 20th century, 65 percent of sterilization procedures were performed on black women, even though only 25 percent of the state’s female population is black. North Carolina alone sterilized over 7,600 individuals between the 1930 and 1970s.
Eventually, North Carolina became one of a handful of states to acknowledge this shameful history when it formally apologized and offered compensation to surviving victims of its 40-year sterilization program in 2012, four decades after its end.
SCRIPTURAL REFLECTION: JEREMIAH 9: 17-21
17 This is what the Lord Almighty says:
“Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come;
send for the most skillful of them.
18 Let them come quickly
and wail over us
till our eyes overflow with tears
and water streams from our eyelids.
19 The sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
‘How ruined we are!
How great is our shame!
We must leave our land
because our houses are in ruins.’”
20 Now, you women, hear the word of the Lord;
open your ears to the words of his mouth.
Teach your daughters how to wail;
teach one another a lament.
21 Death has climbed in through our windows
and has entered our fortresses;
it has removed the children from the streets
and the young men from the public squares.”
RESPONSE OF LAMENT AND CONFESSION: Please spend some time in personal response, crying out to God with prayers, poems, songs, or art that expresses your lament and confession. If you feel led, please share these responses with others, using #lentenlament #day20
You may close with the following:
Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.
CLOSING PRAYER: STORM BEATEN (Clara Ann Thompson, 1908)
Weary, worn, and sorrow-laden
Jesus, I have come to Thee
Shield me from the darts of Satan;
Set my fettered spirit free.
Hearken to my plea for guidance,
As I kneel before Thy throne;
Cheer me with Thy Holy Presence,
When I feel I’m all alone.
Strugglin with the cares that press me,
Falling, when I fain would stand,
Thou alone, canst guide and keep me,
Take, oh take my trembling hand!
Pity Thou my many failings!
Strengthen Thou my falt’ring trust;
Keep me, ‘mid the wind’s loud wailing,
Thou, the Merficful and Just.
-From Conversations with God: Two Prayers by African Americans