During the past month readers of America followed the pre-execution legal maneuvering to stop the Commonwealth of Virginia from carrying out the death sentence on a woman named Teresa Lewis. Lewis was arguably mentally retarded and initially received poor legal representation; her case was later taken on a pro-bono basis by James Rocap of a white-shoe Washington legal firm. Rocap is a graduate of Nortre Dame University and Georgetown Law School. What you’ve read in America's editorial and in other newspaper accounts about Teresa Lewis is but another manifestation of bias and prejudice toward mentally retarded individuals that has occurred over the past century, frequently in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is time, as radio announcer Paul Harvey used to say, to know the rest of the story. David Micklos, Director of the Dolan DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has written:
On May 2nd, 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld the concept of eugenic sterilization for people considered genetically ‘unfit.’ The Court’s decision, delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. included the infamous phrase, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough. Upholding Virginia’s sterilization statute provided the green light for similar laws in 30 states, under which an estimated 65,000 Americans were sterilzed without their consent or that of a family member.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the event, the state of Virginia erected a roadside marker in Charlottesville, home town of Carrie Buck, the plaintiff of the Supreme Court case. Carrie, like her mother Emma, had been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia, at age 17. Carrie and Emma were both judged to be “feebleminded” and promiscuous, primarily because they both had borne children out of wedlock. Carrie’s child, Vivian, was judged to be “feebleminded” at seven months of age. Hence, three generations of “imbeciles” became the “perfect” family for Virginia officials to use as a test case in favor of the eugenic sterilization law enacted in 1924.
Upon reviewing the decision of the Virginia courts in 1927, the United States Supreme Court concurred “that Carrie Buck is the probably potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization...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.
Teresa Lewis’s case brings to our attention the history of objectification and dehumanization of persons, particularly those who are mentally retarded. For many years the work of the psychologists who participated in eugenics, such as H.H. Goddard, were excised from psychology textbooks and articles. While at Loyola, studying for the doctoral examinations, a phrase jumped off the page when I was reading a book by Joseph Matarazzo, President of the American Psychological Association: we have taken Goddard out of the textbooks, Matarazzo wrote. It was only years later when I discovered a moldy book from 1917 by Goddard in a library basement that I realized the point Matarazzo was making earlier, and since then other scholars have conducted serious and extended study on the eugenics movement in Virgina.
In 2002 the Commonwealth of Virginia offered a formal apology for its role in eugenics and in the involuntary sterilizations occurring there--many of them poor, black, or mentally retarded persons--and many of whom, like Carrie Buck, had no “hereditary defects.” Governor Mark Warner stated, “We must remember the Commonwealth’s past mistakes in order to prevent them from reoccurring.” Rose Brooks, a woman who had been forcibly sterilized, helped dedicate a historical marker and said that she thought the Governor’s apology was “pretty good.” Teresa Lewis’s sad fate brings to mind other inequities.
William Van Ornum