Editorials, Opinion

W.Va. senator to sponsor eugenics bill

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Unless, of course, they don’t think history’s “mistakes” are actually mistakes.

At a meeting with Mineral County residents in early December, Sen. Randy Smith (R-Tucker) announced that he will be the lead sponsor for a bill that proposes anyone convicted of a drug-related crime can “volunteer” to be sterilized in exchange for a lesser sentence.

“If you get caught with drugs … but if you want to lessen your prison sentence, if you’re a man, you can get a vasectomy so you can’t produce anymore,” Smith said. “If you’re a woman, then you get your tubes tied, so you don’t bring any more drug babies into the system. Now, you don’t have to. If you don’t you’re going to jail for a very long time. If you volunteer for the program, then you get a lesser sentence.”

Voluntary? As voluntary as a decision made with a gun to your head.

West Virginia has a drug problem. It has a drug-addicted baby problem. It has a foster care problem. All things are true, but forced sterilizations are not the answer.

Let’s start with the procedures themselves. Vasectomies are a relatively minor procedure where the vas deferens, the channel through which sperm flows, is cut or clamped. The procedure generally only requires local anesthetic and recovery takes less than a week. Vasectomies can be reversed, usually with a 60% to 95% success rate. Tubal ligations — aka, getting your tubes tied — is a far more invasive procedure. It involves cutting into the stomach to seal or remove part or all of the fallopian tubes, under spinal or general anesthesia. Recovery can take up to three weeks, and it’s not as easily reversed as a vasectomy. A ligation reversal requires major surgery, and the success rate ranges from 30% to 90% depending on other health factors. Some doctors recommend women who have had their tubes tied try expensive in vitro fertilization, instead. No birth control is 100% effective and neither are tubal ligations, but they do increase the risk of dangerous ectopic pregnancies.

Forced sterilization dates back to the late 1800s and the eugenics movement: selective human breeding. According to Nature magazine, “Among those characteristics targeted for elimination from the human population were such complex and subjectively defined traits as ‘criminality,’ epilepsy, bipolar disorder, alcoholism and ‘feeblemindedness,’ a catchall term used to describe varying degrees of mental retardation and learning disabilities. The possibility that environmental factors (such as poor housing, poor nutrition and inadequate education) might influence the development of these traits was dismissed.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because eugenics was the basis for Adolf Hitler’s campaign to eliminate (read: massacre) thousands of Jewish people (among other “undesirables”) in what we know today as the Holocaust.

Eugenics was also the driving ideology behind dozens of U.S. policies since at least the 1800s, ranging from segregation to immigration quotas to anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding the marriage or sexual intermingling of different races). Interestingly, the Supreme Court ruled in Skinner v. Oklahoma in 1942 that procreation is a fundamental right and states cannot force criminals convicted of certain crimes to be sterilized. However, forced sterilization has continued to be perpetuated against other groups: from the mentally ill, Black women and men, lower-income white women, Latina women, Native American women and, most recently in 2020, immigrant women in ICE detention camps.

The so-called “science” behind eugenics has been disproven again and again, and yet it is still the go-to for certain individuals who seek to rid the world of those they deem undesirable — resulting in human rights disasters the world over.

And now Sen. Smith wants to institute eugenics here in the Mountain State — dedicating state resources to forcibly sterilizing drug users instead addressing the root causes of substance abuse. And he may have enough support in the ultra-conservative Legislature to make his bill law.