Virginia’s compulsory vasectomy

Bioedge

Michael Cook

A Virginia petty criminal has been sentenced to 20 months in prison, three years supervised probation and two years unsupervised probation – and a vasectomy. Twenty-seven-year-old Jessie Lee Herald pleaded guilty to child endangerment, hit and run driving and driving on a suspended license. But it was for none of these that assistant prosecutor Ilona L. White imposed the condition of a vasectomy as part of the plea bargain.

“It was primarily due to the fact he had seven or eight children, all by different women, and we felt it might be in the commonwealth’s interest for that to be part of the plea agreement,” she explained.

He has also agreed not to reverse the vasectomy – which is difficult, in any case – as long as he is on probation.

The quirky conditions of Herald’s sentence, which went viral on the internet, provoked much commentary. It was called “temporary negative eugenics” at Jezebel and at Slate “reproductive coercion“.

Perhaps Ms. White lacks a sense of history, or she would have sensed the irony of compulsory sterilization in Virginia. In 2002, the 75th anniversary of a notorious Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell, Virginia Governor Mark Warner publicly apologized for the state’s past involvement in eugenics. He said, “The eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.”

Carrie Buck was a young woman whom the commonwealth of Virginia wanted to sterilise because she came from bad stock. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled, in an 8-1 decision, against Ms. Buck. The majority ruling was written in 1927 by the legendary Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose imperishable argument was:

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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

After nearly a century, perhaps the commonwealth of Virginia has come full circle in its attitude toward eugenics. Except that now, two generations seem to be enough.


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One thought on “Virginia’s compulsory vasectomy”

  1. It is not at all clear that the vasectomy was suggested or ordered for eugenic reasons (i.e., to prevent Herald from passing on his genes). It appears that the order was made for economic or social reasons: to prevent the imposition of further economic or social burdens on state taxpayers associated with the birth of children out of wedlock. In either case, it is not inconceivable that, for reasons of conscience, a physician might refuse to perform a vasectomy under such circumstances.

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