Virginia's dark history of forced sterilizations

To many people, the Central Virginia Training Center near Lynchburg is a hospital for the mentally ill. To Sarah Pack Wiley, it's simply "the Colony."

It was there when, at the age of 23, Wiley was forcibly sterilized as part of a movement to keep America's gene pool strong. From 1924 through 1979, thousands here and at other VA centers were sterilized against their will or without their knowledge.

The idea was to sterilize those with so-called "defects" so they didn't pass those genes on to children. These "defects" included alcoholism, epilepsy, prostitution and feeblemindedness.

Sarah, who was institutionalized at age 11 along with her brother Marvin and sister Shirley, was diagnosed as "mentally deficient" and was sterilized. She says she was never told why.

The current director of the Central Virginia Training Center says it was a dark chapter. "It was obviously sort of a reprehensible kind of a process,” says Dale Woods. “It was something that was done not only in Virginia, but in many other states as well."

Indeed, the Supreme Court upheld Virginia's sterilization law in 1927. Colony patient Carrie Buck was sterilized--she, her mother and her daughter all declared "feebleminded."

"Three generations of imbeciles are enough," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his ruling.

The impact was ominous.

"In 1933, when Hitler came to power, within one month he used the Virginia Sterilization Act as his model" for medical experiments and race purification practices, says Mark Bold of the Christian Law Institute.

At the Nuremberg war trials, Nazis cited United States sterilization laws as a defense.

Meanwhile, Sarah spent nearly 30 years at the Colony. She received her nurse's aide certificate, was discharged and married James Wiley, was widowed, and now lives with friend and caregiver Margaret Sales.

“I think it was wrong,” Sales says. “It deprived her of having a family of her own. Children, she loves children. She loves my granddaughter.”

And while CVTC is long removed from that mindset, there's an effort to get more victims to come forward before they die, tell their stories--and get more than an apology.

“They've had a fundamental right taken away from them," Bold said. "The least the state can do is provide some type of compensation."
Sarah, now 76, still wonders, "What if?"

“I would have loved to have had a boy,” she says. “I would've named him after my brother."

A hotline for victims has been set up: 888-643-7497. For more information, click here.

Full interview with Sarah Pack Wiley by Greta Kreuz
Madison Heights, Va.
Aug. 23, 2012