Jul 15, 2021

G: Unfit

In the past few weeks, most people have probably seen Britney Spears' name or face everywhere. When she stood in front of a judge (virtually) and protested the conservatorship she's been living under for the past 13 years, one harrowing detail in particular stood out. She told the judge, "I was told right now in the conservatorship, I'm not able to get married or have a baby." Today, we look back at an old episode where we explore why it is that hundreds of thousands of people can have their reproductive rights denied...and spoiler: it goes back to Darwin.

When a law student named Mark Bold came across a Supreme Court decision from the 1920s that allowed for the forced sterilization of people deemed “unfit,” he was shocked to discover that it had never been overturned. His law professors told him the case, Buck v Bell, was nothing to worry about, that the ruling was in a kind of legal limbo and could never be used against people. But he didn’t buy it. In this episode we follow Mark on a journey to one of the darkest consequences of humanity’s attempts to measure the human mind and put people in boxes, following him through history, science fiction and a version of eugenics that’s still very much alive today, and watch as he crusades to restore a dash of moral order to the universe.

This episode was produced by Matt Kielty, Lulu Miller and Pat Walters. 

Special thanks to Sara Luterman, Lynn Rainville, Alex Minna Stern, Steve Silberman and Lydia X.Z. Brown.

Radiolab’s “G” is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate
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PAT WALTERS: Okay, so for this one, we're gonna begin with a conversation between Jad ...


JAD ABUMRAD: There you are. Okay, there you are.


LULU MILLER: Can I drink this mysterious cup of water?


PAT: And Lulu Miller.


JAD: Yeah. I mean, if you wanna take your life in your own hands, you know, I think ...


PAT: She's a writer, radio producer, co-created Invisibilia. And years ago used to work here at Radiolab with me.


LULU: Um ...


JAD: It’s probably fine.


LULU: All right, I’m going.


JAD: Do it.


PAT: And back when we were just getting started thinking about this series, Lulu came to Jad because she had this story she'd been working on. And after they talked, Jad came to me and said, "I just heard this wild story from Lulu. You've gotta include it in this series you're doing on intelligence."


LULU: So here we go. So this I guess -- so this whole thing begins with a guy and his name is Mark Bold.


JAD: Mark Bold.


LULU: Mark Bold.


JAD: B-O-L-D, Bold?


LULU: Nice to meet you!


LULU: B-O-L-D, Bold.


LULU: Oh, not at all.


LULU: He’s the director of the Christian Law Institute, and I met him at his offices in Lynchburg, Virginia. He’s a big guy. Bald head. Bright, blue eyes. Kind of baby face.


LULU: Yeah. Okay, so I guess take me back to law school. Set the scene. How old are you? Where are you?


MARK BOLD: Yeah. How old am I? It's gotta be, I would say about 39.


LULU: So, back in 2010 he was in law school.


MARK BOLD: Went to Liberty University School of Law.


LULU: It was his first year of law school. He was taking this class.


MARK BOLD: Called Foundations. It’s just some of these foundational laws that we have.


LULU: Some of the basics.


MARK BOLD: Brown versus Board of Education.


LULU: Roe v. Wade.


MARK BOLD: And so ...


LULU: He had this moment that, like, we have all probably had. This moment where you’re sitting in class and you're kind of tuning out. And then you hear something that's like, "What? What? What did they just say?"


MARK BOLD: Yeah. Yeah.


LULU: His professor had just mentioned this Supreme Court case ...


MARK BOLD: Buck versus Bell.


LULU: Buck v. Bell.


JAD: Wasn't Buck v. Bell enforced sterilization?


LULU: Yes.


MARK BOLD: I’d never heard of the case, but it's a case in, I’ll say 1927, it originally started. And the Supreme Court held eight to one ...


LULU: That it is legal for a state to forcibly sterilize its own citizens who are deemed, quote unquote "unfit."


JAD: Three generations of imbeciles. Is that from this case?


LULU: It’s that case. Exactly.


JAD: This is Oliver Wendell Holmes, right?


LULU: Exactly.


MARK BOLD: Three generations of imbeciles are enough. And I was blown away by that decision. It reminded me of Germany. Kind of Nazi, this idea that we’re gonna, you know, forcibly sterilize our citizens. It’s constitutional to do that for the betterment of its citizens, for the betterment of society.


LULU: But the thing that really shocked him the most, which again you might also be aware because you are a now legal scholar nerd, but I didn’t know when I first heard about this about two years ago, is that Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.


JAD: Hmm.


LULU: And he's, like ...


MARK BOLD: Just totally dumbfounded, if you will, that we ...


LULU: Like, how could this still be on the books?


JAD: Well, I feel like I should say that like, if you look at the law, you'll find that there are all kinds of bad rulings like that. These terrible laws from our horrible past that have somehow stuck around. But the idea is that no one's gonna act on it. It's just sitting there.


LULU: So that ...


JAD: In theory.


LULU: Okay, so that sound bite, what you just said, “Nobody's gonna act on it. In theory." That wasn’t enough for Mark.


MARK BOLD: I became obsessed with it, obsessed with wanting to know more about Buck versus Bell. Where does it stand today?


[phone call tape]


LULU: And that question ...


MARK BOLD: Hi, this is Mark. I talked ...


LULU: Would end up sending Mark off on this journey.


MARK BOLD: Find out what steps ...


WOMAN: Gonna do a motion for sterilization.


LULU: To these places in America, to these people in America, where Buck v. Bell has not stayed buried in some book.


LULU: What, was she housed in here, or sterilized?


LULU: Where this case has very alive and kicking.


PAT: I’m Pat Walters. And this is episode four of G, a Radiolab mini-series. And today, we’re gonna feature this story from Lulu about sterilization laws in the United States, because it uncovers a very dark side to our attempts to measure the human mind and fit people into boxes. And reaches out into the present day in ways I honestly never expected. And also, because the story of how we got to Buck v. Bell is all tangled up in the history of the IQ test that we got into in our first episode. And it begins with this guy who sort of looms over all of it, a guy I first heard about from writer Siddharta Mukherjee.




PAUL LOMBARDO: Yes, Galton. This British gentleman in the 1880s.


LULU: That is historian Paul Lombardo. Anyway. Francis Galton, he was this British scientist. Kind of a polymath.


JAD: Categorizer of all things.


LULU: Categorizer of all things.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Great measurer. I mean, he apparently walked around London with a pen in his pocket and a piece of paper quantifying the number of women that he found were attractive.




SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: On the left side of his pocket. On -- it's an apocryphal story. And on the right side, the women that he did not find attractive, to get a statistical measure of attractiveness.


PAT: He was, like, obsessed. He measured everything.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: He measured everything. The size of a skull, the height of humans.


LULU: And the other thing, kinda crazy thing, is he was related to Charles Darwin.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: They were cousins.


LULU: And when Darwin publishes his opus, On The Origin of Species, Francis Galton picks up his cousin's book, gives it a little skim and, like, it completely shook him. And his idea was that this mysterious force of natural selection which seems to kind of invisibly naturally shape creatures into their most perfect forms, man could harness this and do the work of nature, but faster and better. Because through his measuring, his statistics, his research, Galton had become convinced that wasn’t just, you know, like, physical traits that got passed down from generation to generation.


MARK BOLD: But also mental traits. The ability to think clearly, the ability to remember well.


LULU: Galton was certain ...


MARK BOLD: All those things could be inherited.


LULU: And not just physical and mental, but ...


MARK BOLD: Moral characteristics and traits could be inherited.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Galton’s idea was that if you could measure everything, if you could measure these human qualities, then you could breed people just like you bred animals.


LULU: Breed for the traits you want, breed out the ones you don't.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: If you did this selectively, he really thought that he would make a better human race.


MARK BOLD: And he comes up with a word.


LULU: Eugenics.


MARK BOLD: Which is Greek for good birth.


JAD: Is that what eugenics means?


LULU: Yeah.


MARK BOLD: He wants eugenics to be a program of better breeding.


LULU: So he starts, you know, touring Europe, giving these lectures on this idea of how you could create a happier, healthier society. And he publishes magazine articles about it.


JAD: Did he ever describe his vision for how this would work? Like, practically? Like, how he would go about doing it?


LULU: Yes. Yeah. This part I feel like less people know about. He actually goes and writes a sci-fi novel called Kantsaywhere.


JAD: Kantsaywhere.


LULU: Yeah.


JAD: Interesting.


LULU: He never published it, but his -- and then after he died, his niece tried to destroy it. But a lot of it has been salvaged and typed up. Do you want to hear some of it? I actually have it.


JAD: Yeah, totally.


LULU: I should say, I’m really tempted to do this in a fake British accent but what do you think?


JAD: Go for it.


LULU: Okay. Okay.


GALTON: Okay. So I should say that they lay much stress on the aesthetic side of things at Kantsaywhere.


LULU: So it's set in a fictional town called Kantsaywhere.


GALTON: Grace and Thoroughness is a motto carved over one of the houses for girls in the college.


LULU: And ...


GALTON: The physique of the girls reminded me ...


LULU: Like, the people themselves of Kantsaywhere, he describes them as ...


GALTON: Promising mothers of a noble race.


LULU: The good stock.


GALTON: As for the men, they are well-built, practiced both in military drill and athletics.


LULU: They're very handsome and virile but very modestly dressed.


GALTON: Gay without frivolity, friendly without gush, and intelligent without brilliancey.


LULU: They never -- they never gossip.


GALTON: A loutish boy and an awkward girl hardly exist in this place.


LULU: And the reason why people are so perfect in Kantsaywhere, is that everyone who enters this society has to take these tests. They have to take all sorts of physical tests. Medical tests and athletic tests, aesthetic tests, and if you do well you’re given all this money and encouraged to have tons of babies. But if you don’t do well ...


GALTON: Such persons are undesirable as individuals and dangerous to the community.


LULU: You're sent to a labor camp, told you are never allowed to have babies. And if you do ...


GALTON: A crime against the state.


LULU: It is considered a criminal act.


GALTON: Owing to the practical certainty that they will propagate their kind if unchecked.


LULU: So Galton's toying around with this fanciful idea, but ...


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: People thought this was a very good idea.


LULU: It sort of caught fire.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Intellectuals, scholars, scientists came to celebrate this idea.


JAD: But this is how you get to the Nazis, right? I mean, this went right into the Nazis, right?


LULU: Oh, my friend, it went to Americans first. So this was something I did not realize at all. There was a huge eugenics craze in America in the early 1900s, and what historians have explained is that there were all these things going on. There was this wave of immigration, there were -- you know, it's just after the Civil War, so there are freed slaves integrating into society. There were Christians freaking out about crime and promiscuity and drinking. And so all kinds of people, really important people thought that these things were problems and that the way to solve it was eugenics. And one of these people is whom I'm writing the book about. This is how I crashed into all this.


JAD: Oh, this is your Stanford guy!


PAT: By the way, Lulu's writing a book. It's coming out soon. It's about this guy, David Starjordan.


LULU: Yeah, so my dude, was, like, one of the earliest, loudest, most powerful proponents of eugenics.


JAD: Got it.


LULU: You can see, like, in the late 1800s, which is decades before most American eugenicists got the fever, he's slipping it into his courses at Stanford. So he's, like, telling smart people these ideas that poverty is linked to the blood and can be exterminated. He would trot these ideas out in front of, like, Benjamin Franklin's 200th birthday party in the late-1800s where there's hundreds of politicians gathered. And he says, you know, this is a matter of life and death for the nation. And he said the Republic will endure only as long as the human harvest is good.


JAD: Eww. That's a horrible phrase.


LULU: And he wrote -- this is a book. This is -- okay, I swear we're almost done. We're almost done with the history. But then he decided to write a whole book about it.


JAD: He wrote a book called the Human Harvest?


LULU: I'm holding it right here.


JAD: What a horrible title!


LULU: It's -- and it's horrible inside. He tells -- to scare people, he tells people about this town in Italy called Aosta, which for about 1,300 years was this sort of refuge for people, you know, with disabilities or deformities. People would send them there and the church would take care of them. And then they could often get married and they work the fields and have families and they're helped by the church and some people see that as this beautiful tale of, like, helping society's most vulnerable. And he went there and he wrote about it as a veritable chamber of horrors. Basically, he says -- he describes the people living there, and say they have less decency than the pig, and he, like, says that it's a different -- it's a subspecies of human. And he says this is where, you know, America's gonna be going if we don't take action.


MARK BOLD: Let me tell you about it.


LULU: Oh yeah, so where are we right now?


MARK BOLD: Yeah, we pulled in. I don't know if you really saw the -- the gate, the entrance.


LULU: Which we totally did. So that day that I was with Mark Bold, he drove me to this place that is just a couple miles from his office. It's called the Central Virginia Training Center.


MARK BOLD: The Training Center.


LULU: It's -- it's ominous.




LULU: It is this campus on a hilltop.


MARK BOLD: Very old buildings.


LULU: With dozens of brick buildings.


MARK BOLD: You see the kind of Roman columns there.


LULU: Tall turrets. But they’re all starting to rot.


MARK BOLD: Starting to become dilapidated, as you can see these were some of the first buildings. There's acres and acres and acres here.


LULU: And at one point, this place was a very real version of Galton's sci-fi dream.


LULU: What does this say?


MARK BOLD: Yep. So this says 'Established in 1910 as the Virginia State Epileptic Colony. The Center admitted its first patients in May, 1911. The facility originally served persons with epilepsy, and began accepting individuals with mental retardation in 1913.'


LULU: So very little on there about the sort of sins of what they've done in the past.


MARK BOLD: Exactly. Nothing in there. It was established in 1910 really as a eugenics facility, and it was a colony, really, for the epileptic and quote "feeble-minded." There's nothing in there that really talks about its main purpose was to house individuals from the community and -- and strip them from society and put them here so they don't propagate their kind. That's really the fundamental reason for its existence.


LULU: So this colony wasn't, like, alone. There were tons of them popping up all over the country. Like, these high-walled holding tanks where people would be kept away from the rest of society and in some cases sterilized. Which, when you think about what that really is, it's a form of extermination. Like, slowly wiping out a certain kind of person.


IVANOVA SMITH: People with disabilities, people with mental illness, people who were immigrants, people of color. Because they were all seen as not good births.


PAT: So this is Ivanova Smith.


IVANOVA SMITH: An activist, advocate and historian.


PAT: At the University of Washington. And she explained that people who arrived at these sorts of colonies would be given extensive tests.


IVANOVA SMITH: And they had different categories, and they used this concept called mental age theory to explain these different categories: moron, imbecile, and idiot. And these were all diagnostic terms that were used to put us in institutions, and they were used to justify us being sterilized.


LULU: So you said us.




LULU: What do you mean by that?


IVANOVA SMITH: So I identify with the intellectual disability community. I would have probably been -- back then I would have been put in the moron category. I’m autistic and I have intellectual disabilities.


LULU: Do you think in the eugenicist day, like, would you have been someone who was sterilized?


IVANOVA SMITH: I think I would have, because they actually encouraged the sterilization of morons in the early-20th century because we were more likely to be sexually active and you know getting -- you know, finding boys, boys finding girls, you know?


LULU: Which brings us back to Buck v. Bell.


LULU: Was she housed in here or was she sterilized in here?


LULU: And in particular, Buck. So Carrie Buck was a girl who grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia. She's born in 1906. And she was mostly raised by her foster parents. She lived a kind of totally normal childhood, sang in the church choir, went to school. But when when she was 17, she says she was raped and she became pregnant out of wedlock. And as a result, her foster parents sent her to the Central Virginia Training Center, which in those days was called the Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. And when she got there, she met this guy, the superintendent, named Albert Priddy. So Albert Priddy was a passionate eugenicist. And at the time, 1924, there was starting to be some pushback about eugenics from churches, social institutions, politicians. And so Priddy was on the hunt for the case that would help to legalize eugenics sterilization at the national level. And when Priddy met Carrie, he felt like he had hit the jackpot, because he realized her mom was there at the colony. Her name was Emma Buck. And she was allegedly a prostitute. And so he had Carrie tested, deemed her feeble-minded. And then when he heard that a social worker had called Carrie Buck's baby, the product of this rape, “peculiar,” he believed he had on his hands proof that feeble-mindedness or unfittedness is linked to the blood.


JAD: Hmm.


LULU: So he found her. He gives -- he arranges to have a lawyer appointed to her. You have to get a -- before you're sterilized, you have, like, a mini-trial. And so the lawyer appointed to her was this guy Whitehead, likely a eugenicist himself. Didn't give her a good defense. Didn't call forward any witnesses. It makes it all the way up to the Supreme Court where we get that ruling.


JAD: Three imbeciles. Okay. So those are the three.


LULU: Yeah, are Emma, Carrie and Vivian.


JAD: Hmm.


LULU: It was three real people. And ...


JAD: And did Buck v. Bell make it nationalized that you could sterilize?


LULU: Yes.


JAD: I see.


LULU: So her case paved the way for over 60,000 sterilizations performed all over the country. And that ruling still sits on the books today. Never overturned.


JAD: Wow.


LULU: All right. Knuckle crack? We have made it through that horrific history.


JAD: So we’re coming back to Bold?


LULU: We are coming back to Bold. So Bold is sitting in law school and he's like, "What?"


MARK BOLD: Exactly. Just totally dumbfounded, if you will.


LULU: And so he goes to his professor, and he's like, how has this never been overturned? And then the professor says every state has since overturned it.


MARK BOLD: All the states repealed their laws. So it hasn't been overturned because we don't have another quote, "case" or controversy before us.


LULU: Which is, you know, the thing that, like, all the legal scholars say, which is like, “Well, technically it's in this kind of purgatory. Don't worry, you’re being paranoid. You couldn't actually get sterilized. Blah blah blah because you’re looking for a thing." Okay.


JAD: [laughs] Well, okay. Just to sort of like ...


LULU: Honor them?


JAD: Honor those legal scholars for a second.


LULU: Yeah.


JAD: I mean, there's all kinds of stupid, stupid rulings. Like Koramatsu.


LULU: Right.


JAD: Which we did a big thing about.


LULU: Right.


JAD: Which basically, like, round up a whole bunch of citizens that are American citizens but are Japanese, Japanese American, for no other reason that they're Japanese. That's constitutionally wrong. But they did it, and it's still technically good law. So it's kind of in that, like, oh that sucked, but the limbo.


LULU: The limbo. Sorry, Jad I thought you were gonna say limbo.


JAD: No, so it's like -- I mean, there are other cases, there are other really terrible decisions that are in that space.


LULU: So that -- tons of people said that to him.


JAD: To Bold?


LULU: To Bold. To Mark Bold. But Bold ...


MARK BOLD: I became obsessed with it.


LULU: He just wasn't convinced that this thing was dead.


MARK BOLD: So I was-- a lot of my free time, if you could say that as if you don't have enough to do in law school, right? I just started searching the code of each state, using keywords of feeble-minded and undesirable and sterilization and eugenics, and ...


LULU: So he started looking at each and every state law. And he did it alphabetically.


MARK BOLD: Alabama, then Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississ ... going through all the codes and searching. New Hampshire and New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington.


LULU: And then, finally he gets to ...


MARK BOLD: West Virginia.


LULU: And there he sees it in this West Virginia statute. Chapter 27, Article 16 entitled Sterilization of Mental Defectives.


MARK BOLD: It's talking about sterilization for the best interest of society.


JAD: Was this -- wait ...


LULU: This was still on the books.


JAD: Still on the books.


LULU: It's the year 2012.


MARK BOLD: Totally dumbfounded. I was like ...


LULU: So there was something in the code that basically still said you could be forcibly sterilized if you were unfit. Something ...


MARK BOLD: Exactly, yeah. If you're considered feeble-minded, then you -- in the best interest of society, you can be sterilized.


JAD: Wow. Like oversight? Or was it in use?


LULU: Right. So he didn't know.


MARK BOLD: What I did is I wanted to find out, do we still do that? If I was a father of a child who had a disability, some type of intellectual disability, can I forcibly sterilize my daughter ...


LULU: So he like, gets himself in a zone where he wants to pretend that he has an adult daughter over the age of 21 who he wants to sterilize.


MARK BOLD: So I called this circuit court.


JAD: What -- he was -- he was pretending, so he was doing kind of like a sting, like a one-man sting?


LULU: Yes.


JAD: Like, let me see if I call the statehouse and say, I have a daughter who wants -- who I want sterilized, will you do it for me or is that legal?


LULU: Yes. And he records the call if you would like to hear it.


JAD: Play it.


WOMAN: County Clerk’s office.


MARK BOLD: Yes, is [beep] there please?


WOMAN: She’s on the phone, do you want to hold?


MARK BOLD: Yeah, that’d be great. Thank you.


LULU: I think he called -- I think this might be the second time.


WOMAN: [beep] speaking.


MARK BOLD: Hey, this is Mark. I talked to you earlier this morning here when I was driving. You called and you told me to call you back if I had any questions or what have you. It is in regards to my handicapped daughter and the sterilization.


WOMAN: Yes, yes.


MARK BOLD: Okay. So I now have the chance to obviously sit down at the desk here. I took some time off work and wanted to find out what steps ...


WOMAN: You’re gonna do a motion for sterilization.


JAD: What?


WOMAN: And you’re gonna tell the judge the reason why you need that done and, you know, the situation. And then it'll come to me. I’ll set a hearing. You guys will have a hearing on it. And the judge will make the decision which more -- most of the times, you know, they know that this needs to be done. So I don't think that you're gonna have a problem, you know?




WOMAN: And then we'll set a hearing. As soon as I get it, I’ll get it to [beep] and she’ll give you a call.


MARK BOLD: I'll just write a letter. Is that what I need to do?




JAD: Wait. She says most the time, the judge ...


LULU: Yeah.


JAD: And this was 2012?


LULU: Yeah.


WOMAN: You're gonna do a motion handwrite your daughter’s name, then under that motion for -- and then write out what you need.


MARK BOLD: Okay. So I’ll say motion ...


WOMAN: And then you put your number on the bottom where we can reach you.


MARK BOLD: Okay. This is not a -- we're not gonna be the first one to do this. Okay, to us, we feel weird about it, you know what I mean? I mean, it's just ...


WOMAN: Oh no, sir. You're absolutely not the first ones. A lot of -- this has to be done, because we have so many problems with -- yeah, you have to do this. It’s for her best ...


MARK BOLD: Exactly. I don't think people understand this type -- you know, these type of people, they're difficult.


WOMAN: No. You are -- no, no you are doing the best thing. The problem is, is when we get some that don't do it and then it's a problem, you know, that has to be dealt with. But no sir, you are doing what you’re supposed to.




MARK BOLD: Basically, the answer is a resounding yes. Needs to be done. It's common. Don't worry about it. I even -- was concerned. Well, what if people know, will my neighbors know? No, it's sealed.


WOMAN: You just send it straight to me, and I'll get every -- pull the file and get everything taken care of.


MARK BOLD: Okay. All right. Well, thank you so much.


WOMAN: Okay, you’re welcome.


MARK BOLD: All right. Bye bye.


JAD: Get the [beep] out. Did I just hear that?


LULU: Yes. So this ...


JAD: That’s insane!


LULU: Yeah, so really quick a couple of things. First of all, to be fair to her, it is not officially her job to judge whether or not someone should be sterilized, it’s her job to get that question to a judge. And second of all, there is a legal difference between sterilizing someone for eugenic purposes, for the good of society. Like, there's something wrong with them that may be passed down to the next generation and threaten the race, versus sterilizing someone for their own quote-unquote “best interest.” And there actually are a number of states today that allow for a parent or guardian to have their disabled child sterilized for medical purposes, even if that person doesn't give consent.


JAD: Oh, because if they have a child, they might die kind of a thing?


LULU: Yeah, and some of the laws even talk about that person’s inability to adequately care for a child. So that ...


JAD: Do you think the woman who was responding to Mark saying, “Oh, yeah, we've done this before” with that kind of case in mind, or with the more eugenics-y flavored case in mind?


LULU: Honestly, I don't know. I was able to find her, but she said she couldn’t comment on this case for the story. And numbers of how frequently sterilizations are done are really hard to find. But what is clear is that at the time of that call, the law as it was written in the books, one of the reasons why a judge could approve of a sterilization procedure is, and I quote, “That the individual is mentally impaired, and that such defect is of a genetic nature that is likely to be passed on to any children.” Which is just pure eugenic reasoning.


MARK BOLD: Right? So it's the general welfare. What's in the best interest of society?


LULU: It's not about what's in the person's best interests.


MARK BOLD: And so I found it disturbing.


LULU: So he was horrified.


MARK BOLD: And I wanted to put the nail in the coffin.


LULU: But he also -- this was kind of his, like, hero genesis moment.


MARK BOLD: What I did is put out a press release. And in a sense I was wanting to pick a fight. The Christian Law Institute is considering suing West Virginia et cetera, over its eugenics forced sterilization law. The Charleston Gazette picked it up.


LULU: And his idea was ...


MARK BOLD: I was really hoping that the state would, in a sense defend it. That we can together, get it before the Supreme Court and say, “Hey, let's overturn this."


LULU: So his dream was like, "I'm gonna reach out to West Virginia and say, 'Let's do this thing, and you defend the law and then we'll get it to the Supreme Court.'"


JAD: Wait. So his legal strategy was sue it ...


LULU: Make them uphold it.


JAD: Like, on appeal it gets upheld or something. And it just kind of works its way up.


LULU: Yeah. But right after the article came out ...


MARK BOLD: It went before the legislature, and they just unanimously repealed it.


LULU: Oh! How fast did that happen?


MARK BOLD: I just was notified of that probably about a couple months after ...


LULU: They immediately overturned the law because they were like, we’re West Virginia, we don’t want to be seen as upholding eugenics sterilization. So, great for the people of West Virginia, but Mark's bigger plan to overturn Buck v. Bell was foiled.


JAD: Hmm.


LULU: And so he starts thinking, "All right. If I can't find justice for people in the future, can I reach back into the past and find it there?"


PAT: And we'll join him on that search after a quick break.


[AUDREY: Hey, Radiolab. It's Audrey calling from Asheville, North Carolina. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org]




PAT: Hey, this is Radiolab. We're back with Lulu Miller's story for G. Before the break, Mark Bold had gotten his West Virginia law struck down which he was excited about, but it also meant he couldn't use it to challenge Buck v. Bell at the Supreme Court. Back to Lulu.


LULU: All right. So Mark starts noticing that West Virginia wasn’t some kind of outlier. There were all these other states that had their eugenics sterilization laws on the books until the '80s, '90s, 2000s.


MARK BOLD: So I started looking into finding victims. Is there somebody alive, you know?


LULU: Thinking he could maybe do something to help them. Get them some money. Something. And pretty quickly, he found some people.


LULU: Good to see you!


ANNA SEAL: Good to see you, too.


LULU: He introduced me to a bunch of them, including this one woman, Anna Seal.


LULU: I don’t know how you feel about pie. Coconut creme?


LULU: Who lives just a couple miles from the Central Virginia Training Center, which is the colony where Carrie Buck was sterilized. She’s got a sunny, two bedroom apartment.


LULU: It’s so nice in here.


LULU: Full of plants.


LULU: Is that a bird?




LULU: With two birds, actually. And her best friend, Mary, who she met at the Virginia Colony when she was young. So ...


ANNA SEAL: We had nothing but beans, and pork and beans every night.


LULU: Anna explained that growing up, her family was really poor. And things with her parents were bad.


ANNA SEAL: Daddy drank all the time and ...


LULU: She said that she and her brothers, like, often didn’t have any clothes.


ANNA SEAL: We had no clothes.


LULU: And at one point, the neighbors reported that the kids were been living in a pen behind the house.


ANNA SEAL: It was cold, and we didn’t have no heat.


LULU: And pretty soon, the authorities came to take them away. Anna was seven.


LULU: Do you remember that? Did they come in, like, a police car or a truck, or ...


ANNA SEAL: I think a car.


LULU: She and her brothers were driven to the Central Virginia Training Center. She was given a bunch of tests. And they decided that Anna was ...


ANNA SEAL: Feeble-minded.


LULU: Feeble-minded.


ANNA SEAL: Retarded. Yeah.


LULU: They issued her an inmate number, cut her hair.


ANNA SEAL: I didn’t want -- I didn’t want that to happen.


LULU: They were often forced to wait outside in the cold rain, to wait for food. They had to work with no pay. Years went by, and Anna was told she could leave, just agree to be sterilized. But she said no. She had always wanted to have kids, and so she said no. And ironically all that time, her job at the colony was to care for kids.


ANNA SEAL: I used to give them baths. You know, help give them baths every other night.


LULU: You would give them a bath?


ANNA SEAL: They can't take care of themselves. I love kids. But I wasn’t, you know -- yeah.


LULU: And one day when she was 19 years old, two nurses came and said they were gonna give her a checkup and they gave her a mask of what she thinks was ether, and she felt the world slipping away. And she was like -- she figured she was being euthanized.


ANNA SEAL: I was gone. I thought I wasn’t gonna wake up.


LULU: She thought that this was it.


ANNA SEAL: I woke up.


LULU: And did you know when you woke up, what had happened?


ANNA SEAL: No. Uh-uh.


LULU: What is it -- is it still -- do you still have a scar?


ANNA SEAL: Yeah, still got the scar. I think about it every day, you know?


LULU: So over about two years Mark found about a dozen people who'd been sterilized in Virginia.


MARK BOLD: I would just sit there and weep, you know? With my -- as I would listen to them tell their stories about how they were taken from their families and what happened here and -- you know?


LULU: So he goes down to the Virginia State General Assembly and he brings them -- brings Anna with him. She remembers it.


JAD: So what he wants at this point is an apology?


LULU: Yes. He wants a bill ...


MARK BOLD: to get some type of compensation for victims who were forcibly sterilized.


LULU: So he goes down to the Virginia state government, and he makes this appeal. He says Virginia was where the first Supreme Court-sanctioned sterilization happened. Virginia should be the first to compensate its victims. And they basically pass.


JAD: Like as in, "No thank you?"


LULU: Yeah.


JAD: What did -- what did they say?


LULU: Well, Mark says, in his opinion, he thinks it was pretty much just about ...


MARK BOLD: Ugh, money. They call themselves “conservative,” but they’re so fiscally conservative ...


LULU: He says that one of the things that was so frustrating about this was that he didn’t really have the support of, like, "his people."


MARK BOLD: People who -- I’m Republican, just for what it’s worth. We have this idea of pro-family. And here you have these guys at least championing that and I’m like, "What more of a pro-family -- how about the right to have a family? You know what I’m saying? If you say you're pro-family, you know, you're pro-life, how about the right to give life, you know what I'm saying? And so it just seemed so hypocritical to me. I just find it repugnant. It still makes me angry to this day, right?


LULU: Yeah, your face just changed. It's like a deep soul disappointment.


MARK BOLD: Yeah. Yeah, because again ...


[NEWS CLIP: The house budget set aside about ...]


LULU: But just a few months later ...


[NEWS CLIP: Mark Bold with the Justice for Sterilization Victims Project.]


LULU: He and a team of lawmakers and activists convinced North Carolina to pass a bill.


[LEGISLATURE CLIP: Providing relief to those citizens that this state has injured is the just and righteous thing to do. Time is running out.]


LULU: And they award everyone who's been sterilized $50,000, and they say they're sorry. And then a couple years later, Virginia passes it. But then Virginia only gives $25,000, which he just felt like was such an unnecessary slight.


LULU: But, for Anna ...


ANNA SEAL: We got paid.


LULU: So what does that mean? Is it like ...


LULU: It helps. She gets about $50 a week. And she uses it to help with the groceries, with bills.


ANNA SEAL: And the cable.


LULU: And she used a chunk of it to treat her friend Mary to a present.


LULU: Oh, hello little guy!


LULU: After Mary had got some hard news, she went out and got her a hamster.


LULU: Who is that?


ANNA SEAL: Sugarfoot.


LULU: Sugarpuff?


ANNA SEAL: Sugarfoot.


LULU: Just to cheer her up. Anna spends her time hanging out with her neighbors. She goes to church. She feeds her birds.


LULU: Did you do that one?


ANNA SEAL: Yeah, I did these right here.


LULU: She colors.


LULU: Okay. And what’s this guy?


ANNA SEAL: A bear.


LULU: Surfing.


ANNA SEAL: Yeah. And a dog here. And a bear, too.


LULU: And this one’s kayaking. Wow, and they’re really bright!


LULU: And she takes care of her best friend, Mary. You know, when I was there she was constantly getting up to refill Mary’s drink. Mary walks with a cane now, and Anna kept refreshing her glass of iced tea. She even set up Mary with her most recent boyfriend.


LULU: How’d you know him? How’d you meet him?


ANNA SEAL: He said he was looking for a friend. And I said Mary will be your friend.


LULU: [laughs] You said, 'Not me?"


LULU: But as much as this apartment is filled with laughter and life, you can still see that this loss, this theft really, she carries it.


LULU: Okay, so what are we looking at?


ANNA SEAL: We got dolls. Doll babies.


LULU: Doll babies on your bed. A boy and a girl?


ANNA SEAL: Uh-huh.


LULU: Do they have names?




LULU: What are their names?


ANNA SEAL: That’s Bobby.


LULU: Bobby.


ANNA SEAL: That’s little Mary.


LULU: So that’s Mary, and who’s this?




LULU: And whose is yours?


ANNA SEAL: This is mine right here.


LULU: Yours is Mary.




LULU: And Mary’s is ...


LULU: She says she brings the doll with her to church, on the bus.


LULU: Do you bring her, like, shopping? Grocery store?


ANNA SEAL: Oh, I take her everywhere I go.


LULU: And why? I mean is it like ...


ANNA SEAL: Oh, because I love kids. And I wanted to have kids but I couldn’t even though I want to, you know? Settle down and get married, but I didn’t have no kids.


LULU: So is it kinda like, she’s become a kid?




MARY: She is a kid!


LULU: She is a kid.


LULU: For me, what astounds me the most is, like, the way that eugenicists talk it’s always about the good of society, saving the race, saving the nation. It's the obsession with the future and with perfection, and a master race. They say that it’s science, that if you just look -- if you read Darwin and you apply his principles, this is how we make a better race.


JAD: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.


LULU: But the thing that, like, they all somehow happen to miss in On the Origin of Species is how frequently Darwin talks about one thing, this one ingredient, that he marvels at. He doesn’t understand why it’s there, but it is the thing to which we all owe our existence on Earth. What is that one ingredient? Variation.


JAD: Huh.


LULU: Variation, it is the engine of natural selection, of beings being created more perfectly. It is what, you know, when a gene pool is too homogeneous it's weaker.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


LULU: And so the eugenicists, by breeding out variation were in a way foiling their very own plot of building a master race.


JAD: Yeah. Like, who gets to say what we need, you know? There’s a humility built into the theory of natural selection which just gets immediately -- immediately distorted with social Darwinism.


LULU: Right.


JAD: Because it’s like, "We decide."


LULU: Exactly. And I think often times this story seems like it's past tense, like it's over. But that hubris is still in our laws today. I mean, I talked earlier about those laws which are supposedly different from the eugenics sterilization laws, the laws where you're allowed to sterilize someone in their best interests.


PAUL LOMBARDO: Those statutes are still controversial.


LULU: As Paul Lombardo explains, when you really dig down into the language, these laws are still saying there are some times when we should be making the decision for someone else about whether or not they should have children.


PAUL LOMBARDO: I think your inclination is correct. There are reports of abuse, and there certainly are opportunities for abuse in this case. These are powers of the state, which we should -- which we should be incredibly suspicious of.


PAT: Hey, this is Pat. I just wanna jump in quick. First of all, this story is so intense. But -- and I guess I just kind of have one question at the end about that last thing you were talking about, Lulu.


LULU: Yeah?


PAT: So there are these laws, that are different than the eugenics sterilization laws that I guess still allow for involuntary sterilization, like, by a parent or guardian. I guess I’m just wondering, like, have you heard about that happening?


LULU: Yeah. No, I talked to parents. I talked to parents -- two parents actually who are struggling with this right now. I talked to a mom who has a son with severe disabilities and who's approaching adulthood. She is, like, watching him, you know, grow into a man’s body with man's desires and thinking about sex.


PAT: Oh. And she's, like, worried that he would get someone pregnant.


LULU: Yeah. And worrying that, like, she doesn’t think there'd be any way he'd be able to care for a kid.


PAT: Hmm.


LULU: And so in her mind she has entertained the thought. Like, would he oddly be able to live a freer life if he could have sex and have romantic relationships without the worry of getting somebody pregnant.


PAT: Yeah, wow. That is just, like a -- an impossibly difficult place to be sitting as a parent.


LULU: Yeah. I think that there are parents, family members, grappling with this question in a really private, hard way. Like, is there some line where someone is so severely disabled they should not be allowed to have kids.


IVANOVA SMITH: Okay, so in those types of situations ...


LULU: This is Ivanova Smith, the historian and disabilities advocate we heard from before. When I talked to her about this, she says when it comes to looking for that line ...


IVANOVA SMITH: I think it’s really dangerous because that line moves. And so having that line is -- I get what you’re saying that there needs to be a line, there needs to be some point. But at the same time, my fear and many people in the disability community's fear is that it’s arbitrary. And it all depends on like the policies and the politics.


LULU: And like, who's deciding where that line is? Is it a parent, a guardian, someone appointed by the state?


IVANOVA SMITH: All of that. It’s scary for us I guess, for the disability community. It’s scary to talk about the line, because that means we have to leave somebody out.


LULU: And Ivanova says if she had been born in a different time or even in slightly different circumstances, she would have been left out.


IVANOVA SMITH: If I had not been adopted, I would have been way below that line.


LULU: Wow! So where did you -- where were you an orphan?


IVANOVA SMITH: I was in Soviet-occupied Latvia. And I was born with clubfeet on both of my feet, and they diagnosed me with my developmental disabilities, and they diagnosed me with autism. And I never learned my native language, because the orphanage was never able to teach me my native language. And I lived in the orphanage for ...


LULU: You weren’t speaking at all?


IVANOVA SMITH: I was -- I was babbling when I was five and a half.


LULU: And soon after that, she was adopted by an American couple.


IVANOVA SMITH: I came to Washington State and ...


LULU: Eventually learned to talk. Went to school, which could be difficult because as she puts it, she had a very visible disability.


IVANOVA SMITH: Like, I rock.


LULU: So she'd be sitting there in her chair, moving her body back and forth.


IVANOVA SMITH: The ways that my movements are, it's just kind of awkward.


LULU: Had learning disabilities.


IVANOVA SMITH: I also -- I have a hard time regulating my emotions sometimes.


LULU: She'd have little outbursts. Break down in tears.


IVANOVA SMITH: So sometimes I need, like, support.


LULU: But she kept going. Made it through school. Eventually started dating.


IVANOVA SMITH: We dated for 10 years before we got married. And then I had no idea that that one Valentine's Day that we decided not to use a condom [laughs] ...


LULU: In 2017, she got pregnant. And she was terrified.


IVANOVA SMITH: A lot of my peers were like "Oh, you shouldn’t have kids."


LULU: Her whole life basically people had been telling her, like, "You can’t be a mother."


IVANOVA SMITH: You would be dangerous.


LULU: And she had started to believe them.


IVANOVA SMITH: I agreed with them.


LULU: She worried about all these things.


IVANOVA SMITH: Yeah, like, I wouldn't -- like, I forget to feed them. Or like, I have depth perception issues. And so I was, like, afraid that I would, like, trample over them or, like, drop them.


LULU: And worse than that ...


IVANOVA SMITH: I don’t understand other people’s emotions. And so I was scared that I would not have that nurturing feeling.


LULU: Like, she'd look at the baby and just feel confused. Or nothing.


IVANOVA SMITH: And I remember calling my mom when I found out that, you know, I was pregnant. I was -- I told my mom I was scared. But my mom was like, "I’m gonna be here for you, and we're gonna get through this. And this is gonna be -- and this is -- we are so excited." Like, they were so excited. When I first went to the doctor's to confirm the pregnancy test, there was a nurse trying to give me paperwork about the abortion pills. And I said it to them then, "There’s a little human being inside me. And I’m gonna raise -- I'm gonna do my best to love them. I'm scared to death. I'm terrified, but I'm gonna do the best I can." And I didn't start really enjoying it until she came out of me.


LULU: Hmm.


IVANOVA SMITH: And they put her on me. This little tiny little thing, this little peanut. She had the biggest eyes. Like, I usually cannot look at people in the eyes, but her eyes were just so big. And she looked wide-eyed at me, and I just -- like, all of those, like, nurturing instincts, I think they just came at once. I knew what to do. I got to cuddle her and -- and I gave her snuggles. She doesn't care that I rock, and she doesn’t care that I talk to myself. She’s just a happy little snuggle and she loves me unconditionally, and I love her. And I think she's made me a better person. Creating that little human, it was the most amazing moment of my life. And she’s just such a blessing, you know? I can't imagine life without that little girl. And you know, there was that one time where I would have been told that it would have been for my best interest to have been sterilized.


LULU: And what do you say to someone who just says, you know, "Oh, you rock, and you get so -- you have a meltdown getting on the bus. And you might not -- you can’t drive her, and you shouldn’t --" that they worry about her safety. I mean, what do you say to them? What do you say to someone who still thinks "Oh no, is your little girl gonna be okay in your care?"


IVANOVA SMITH: I would say to them that do you see that in my little girl’s face?


[baby gurgles]


IVANOVA SMITH: Oh, the little lamb is gonna tickle the peanut. That little lamb is tickling the peanut!


IVANOVA SMITH: Do you see that when she’s laughing her little heart out when I’m giving her a hug?


[baby gurgles]


IVANOVA SMITH: That’s a yellow one, though. That's that yellow Jeep.


IVANOVA SMITH: Do you see that when she’s coming to me saying, "Muti, muti, muti," you know?


[baby gurgles]


IVANOVA SMITH: That’s right! Yep, that’s yellow. That’s the yellow Jeep.


IVANOVA SMITH: I would tell them to presume competence, to presume that we could be good parents. Give us that chance.


[baby gurgles]


PAT: Reporter, Lulu Miller. Lulu has a book coming out soon. It’s called Why Fish Don't Exist, and it's all about the dangers of trying to order the world. It's partly about that scientist David Starjordan, and partly about her own life. You can find a link to pre-order it on our website, radiolab.org, or hers, LuTimesTwo.com.


PAT: This episode was produced by Matt Kielty, Lulu Miller and me. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, and special thanks to Sara Luterman, Lynn Rainville, Alex Minna Stern, Steve Soberman and Lydia XZ Brown. Lulu’s reporting was partially supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists. And Radiolab's G is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone in the process in science. We'll be back next week with the fifth episode of G.


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[IVANOVA SMITH: This is Ivanova Smith. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Nora Keller, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O’Donnell, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With the help of Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Ruth Samuel, Imani Leonard, Neel Dhanesha. And our fact checker is Michelle Harris.]


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