Buck v. Bell: Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Compulsory Sterilization of the Unfit

One of the worst Supreme Court rulings in history. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the court upheld a statute that enabled the state of Virginia to sterilize so-called mental defectives or imbeciles. The person in question was Carrie Buck, a poor, young woman then confined in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, though she was neither epileptic nor mentally disabled (only born out of wedlock). In the landmark decision, eight judges ruled that the state of Virginia had the right to sterilize her. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the majority opinion concluding, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The decision resulted in 60,000 to 70,000 sterilizations of Americans considered “unfit” to reproduce. At the Nuremberg trials, lawyers for Nazi scientists cited the opinion in defense of their actions. We speak to Adam Cohen, author of “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.”

The Supreme Court decision had its origins in the eugenics movement then thriving in the United States. The 1924 Immigration Act was passed with similar intent—to prevent immigration by genetically inferior groups, which included Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans and countless others, in an attempt to improve the genetic quality of the American population.

Although Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization statute in 1907, this and other early laws were legally flawed and did not meet the challenge of state court tests. To remedy this situation, Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor designed a model eugenic law that was reviewed by legal experts. The Virginia statute of 1924 was closely based on this model.

On the eve of the Virginia legal contest, the ERO dispatched its field worker, Dr. Arthur Estabrook, to provide expert testimony. After some cursory examination, Estabrook testified that the seven month old Vivian “showed backwardness.” The Superintendent of the Virginia Colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, testified that members of the Buck family “belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” Upon reviewing the case, the Supreme Court concurred “that Carrie Buck is the probable 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”

Buck vs. Bell was flawed in many ways. “Feeblemindeness” is no longer used in medical terminology; it was clearly a catch-all term that had virtually no clinical meaning. It is impossible to judge whether or not Carrie was “feebleminded” by the standards of her time, but she was not patently promiscuous. According to Carrie, Vivian’s conception was the result of Carrie’s rape by the nephew of her foster parents. She, probably like many unwed mothers of that time, was institutionalized to prevent further shame to the family. Just as clearly, Vivian was no imbecile. Vivian’s first grade report card from the Venable School in Charlottesville showed that this daughter of a supposed social degenerate got straight “As” in deportment (conduct) and even made the honor role in April, 1931. She died a year later of complications following a bout of the measles.

Although in 1942 the Supreme Court struck down a law allowing the involuntary sterilization of criminals, it never reversed the general concept of eugenic sterilization. In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly acknowledged that the sterilization law was based on faulty science and expressed its “profound regret over the Commonwealth’s role in the eugenics movement in this country and over the damage done in the name of eugenics.” On May 2, 2002 a marker was erected to honor Carrie Buck in her hometown of Charlottesville.

Author Adam Cohen writes about the case in his new book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Adam was previously a member of The New York Times editorial board and a senior writer for Time magazine. On Carrie Buck, he writes:

“…she’s a young woman who is growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, being raised by a single mother. Back then, there was a belief that it was better often to take poor children away from their parents and put them in middle-class homes. So she was put in a foster family that treated her very badly. She wasn’t allowed to call the parents “mother” and “father.” She did a lot of housekeeping for them and was rented out to the neighbors. And then, one summer, she was raped by the nephew of her foster mother. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock. And rather than help her with this pregnancy, they decide to get her declared epileptic and feebleminded, though she was neither, and she’s shipped off to the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded outside of Lynchburg, Virginia.

So she gets there at just the wrong time. Virginia has just passed an eugenics sterilization law, and they want to test it in the courts. So they seize on Carrie Buck as the perfect plaintiff in this lawsuit. So they decide to make her the first person in Virginia who will be eugenically sterilized, and suddenly she’s in the middle of a case that’s headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cohen goes on to explain the kind of medical tests were employed to determine that she was a so-called imbecile:

“These were very primitive IQ tests from the time, that really didn’t test intelligence at all. One question she was asked was: What do you do when a playmate hits you? And whatever her answer was to that was somehow deemed to be relevant to whether or not she was an idiot, an imbecile or a moron.

“…those were the three categories. And this was a formal hierarchy that was established by the psychological profession at the time and was actually in government pamphlets. So, if you were of a mental age of two or younger, you were called an idiot. If you were between three and seven, you were called an imbecile. And if you were eight and—from between eight and 12, you were called a moron. And Carrie and her mother, who was also at the colony, were deemed to be morons.”

Continuing on Carrie Buck and her unjust case, Cohen says:

“…so, they decide to put her in the middle of this test case to see if the Virginia law is constitutional. And they give her a lawyer who’s actually not on her side (appointed by the colony itself). It’s a former chairman of the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded’s own board of directors. He clearly wants to see her sterilized. He does a terrible job writing short briefs that don’t cite the relevant cases. It goes up to the Supreme Court, and the court rules eight to one that, yes, the Virginia law is constitutional, and, yes, Carrie, who there’s nothing wrong with, should be sterilized against her will.

“Back then, the American Civil Liberties Union, which had just started up, really was kind of pro-eugenics, or at least some of the members around it were, and there were no advocacy groups to look out for people like Carrie.

The chief justice was William Howard Taft, who had been president of the United States before he became chief justice, the only president to do that. He had also been a professor at Yale Law School. Louis Brandeis, who was known as “the people’s attorney” before he joined the court, a great progressive hero, he was on the court. And then, of course, Oliver Wendell Holmes, probably the most revered justice in American history, he was a legendary figure. There have been—there’s a movie about him. There was a play on Broadway, cover of Time magazine. He was thought to be the wisest of the judges. And he wrote this terrible decision.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who wrote in the majority opinion for the court, shockingly said that the nation must sterilize those who, quote, “sap the strength of the State [to] prevent our being swamped with incompetence.” He declared, quote, “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.

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