Buck v. Bell: 1927

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Buck v. Bell: 1927

Plaintiff: Carrie Buck
Defendant: Dr. J.H. Bell
Appellant's Claim: That Virginia's eugenic sterilization law violated Carrie Buck's constitutional rights
Chief Defense Lawyer: Aubrey E. Strode
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Irving Whitehead
Justices: Louis D. Brandeis, Pierce Butler, Willis Van Devanter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James C. McReynolds, Edward T. Sanford, Harlan F. Stone, George Sutherland and William N. Taft
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: May 2, 1927
Decision: Upheld as constitutional Virginia's compulsory sterilization of young women considered "unfit [to] continue their kind"

SIGNIFICANCE: Virginia's law served as a model for similar laws in 30 states, under which 50,000 U.S. citizens were sterilized without their consent. During the Nuremberg war trials, Nazi lawyers cited Buck v. Bellas acceptable precedent for the sterilization of 2 million people in its "Rassenhygiene" (race hygiene) program.

The Supreme Court's decision in Buck v. Bell resulted in only one letter of sympathy to the soon-to-be sterilized Carrie Buck and surprisingly little newspaper coverage. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the decision, had no second thoughts. As he wrote in a letter later that month, "One decision gave me pleasure, establishing the constitutionality of a law permitting the sterilization of imbeciles." The decision had far-reaching and disastrous consequences, however, not only for Carrie Buckwho was not "feebleminded" or retardedbut for many other similarly sterilized individuals and the peoples involved in World War II.

Emma Buck was the widowed mother of three small children, whom she supported through prostitution and with the help of charity until they were removed from her. On April 1, 1920, she was brought before Charlottesville, Virginia Justice of the Peace Charles D. Shackleford; after a cursory interview, Shackleford committed Emma Buck to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

At the age of three, Emma Buck's daughter Carrie had joined the family of J.T. and Alice Dobbs. Her school records indicate a normal progression through five years, until she was withdrawn from school by the Dobbs so that she could assume more of the family's housework. The Dobbs were completely satisfied until Carrie turned 17. Then, during what Carrie claimed was a rape by the Dobbs' son, she became pregnant.

The Dobbs brought Carrie before Shackleford and asked him to commit her to the Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, as he had her mother. The Dobbs and their family doctor testified that Carrie was feebleminded; a second doctor agreed. That same day, January 24, 1924, Shackleford signed the order committing the second member of the Buck family to the state colony. The Dobbs institutionalized Carrie as soon as her daughter Vivian was born; they then raised the infant as their own.

Virginia Approaches its Courts with a "Solution"

Dr. Albert Priddy, the first superintendent of the colony, advocated eugenicsthe controlled mating of humans to "improve" the speciesas society's best response to the presence of those he called "mental defectives." In the seven years prior to Carrie Buck's arrival, he had sterilized 75 to 100 young women without their consent, claiming that he had operated to cure "pelvic disease." In 1924 the Virginia Assembly adopted a bill permitting the forced sterilization of "feebleminded" or "socially inadequate person[s]." It had been prepared by Aubrey Strode, a state legislator and chief administrator of the Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded. Strode had worked from a model sterilization act drafted by American eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, who considered compulsory sterilization to be "the practical application of those fundamental biological and social principles which determine the racial endowments and the racial healthphysical, mental, and spiritualof future generations."

Carrie Buck as a Test Case

On November 19, 1924, Buck v. Priddy was argued before Judge Bennett Gordon in the Circuit Court of Amherst County. Aubrey Strode represented Dr. Priddy, who had come to have Buck declared feebleminded and suitable for compulsory sterilization. Irving Whitehead, a lifelong friend to Strode and one of the first board members of the colony, represented Buck in a manner that seems to have been halfhearted. Whitehead's fee was paid by the colony.

Anne Harris, a Charlottesville district nurse, was the first witness. She testified that "Emma Buck, Carrie Buck's mother was living in the worst neighborhoods, and that she was not able to, or would not, work and support her children, and that they were on the streets more or less."

Strode asked, "What about the character of her offspring?"

Harris replied, "Well, I don't know anything very definite about the children, except they don't seem to be able to do any more than their mother."

Strode pounced. "Well, that is the crux of the matter. Are they mentally normal children?"

And Harris responded, "No, sir, they are not."

Harris then admitted during Whitehead's cross examination: "I really know very little about Carrie after she left her mother [at age 3]. Before that time she was most too small."

Three teachers testified about Carrie's sister, brother, and cousin, using descriptions such as "dull in her books." There was additional testimony about several of Carrie's other relatives, one of whom was described as "right peculiar." The testimony did not relate to Carrie herself until Caroline Wilhelma Red Cross social worker contacted by the Dobbs family during Carrie's pregnancy, took the stand.

Strode asked Wilhelm, "From your experience as a social worker, if Carrie were discharged from the Colony still capable of child-bearing, is she likely to become the parent of deficient offspring?"

Wilhelm replied, "I should judge so. I think a girl of her mentality is more or less at the mercy of other people. Her mother had three illegitimate children, and I should say that Carrie would be very likely to have illegitimate children."

Strode concluded, "So that the only way that she could likely be kept from increasing her own kind would be by either segregation or something that would stop her power to propagate."

Wilhelm next testified about Carrie's daughter, Vivian "It seems difficult to judge probabilities of child as young as that [eight months], but it seems to me not quite a normal baby."

Whitehead, on cross-examination, raised what should have been a pivotal point: "[T]he question of pregnancy is not evidence of feeblemindedness, is it? The fact that, as we say, she made a miss-step [sic] went wrongis that evidence of feeblemindedness?"

Wilhelm replied, "No, but a feebleminded girl is much more likely to go wrong."

Arthur Estabrook of the Carnegie Institute of Washington testified, discussing his 14 years of genetic research and his studies of "groups of mental defectives." Of his conclusions in The Jukes in 1915, a study of one family over four years, he said, "The result of the study was to show that certain definite laws of heredity were being shown by the family, in that the feeblemindedness was being inherited and was the basis of the antisocial conduct, showing up in the criminality and the pauperism."

Spode asked, "From what you know of Carrie Buck, would you say that by the laws of heredity she is a feebleminded person and the probably potential parent of socially inadequate offspring likewise afflicted?"

And Estabrook replied, "I would."

Dr. Priddy testified last. Carrie Buck, he said, "would cease to be a charge on society if sterilized. It would remove one potential source of the incalculable number of descendants who would be feebleminded. She would contribute to the raising of the general mental average and standard [by not reproducing]."

And, finally, Harry H. Laughlin's deposition was read into the court record. Dr. Priddy had written Laughlin, describing Carrie and asking for Laughlin's help in enforcing the sterilization law against her. The information contained in Dr. Priddy's own letter forms the basis of Laughlin's sworn testimony: Carrie, he wrote, has "a mental age of nine years, a record during her life of immorality, prostitution, and untruthfulness; has never been self-sustaining; has one illegitimate child, now about six months old and supposed to be mentally defective. She is a potential parent of socially inadequate or defective offspring." There is no evidence that Carrie Buck was examined by Laughlin.

In February 1925, Judge Gordon upheld the Virginia sterilization law and ordered the sterilization of Carrie Buck. Irving Whitehead appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. (The case was now Buck v. Bell because Dr. Priddy had died a few weeks earlier and Dr. J.H. Bell had taken his place at the colony.) The appeals court decision upheld the circuit court decision.

Supreme Court Reviews Case

In the brief he submitted to the Supreme Court, Whitehead claimed Fourteenth Amendment protection of a person's "full bodily integrity." He also predicated the "worst kind of tyranny" if there were no "limits of the power of the state (which, in the end, is nothing more than the faction in control of the government) to rid itself of those citizens deemed undesirable." Strode, in contrast, likened compulsory sterilization to compulsory vaccination.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the nearly unanimous opinion on May 2, 1927:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these such lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be much by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute 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.

Only Justice Pierce Butler dissented. Carrie Buck was sterilized by Dr. Bell on October 19, 1927. Shortly thereafter, she was paroled from the Virginia colony. She married twice: William Davis Eagle in 1932 and, after his death, Charlie Detamore. The letters she wrote to the Virginia colony seeking custody of her mother, as well as the recollections of her own minister, neighbors and health care providers, belie the notion that Carrie Buck was "feebleminded" or retarded.

Other Applications Result from Buck v. Bell

Laws similar to the Virginia statutes were passed in 30 other states, leading to the forcible sterilization of more than 50,000 people, including Carrie Buck's sister Doris.

Harry L. Laughlin, author of the model sterilization act adapted by Aubrey Strode for Virginia, made his draft available to state and foreign governments, and his model became Germany's Hereditary Health Law in 1933. In appreciation, he was awarded an honorary degree from Heidelberg University in 1936. After World War II, defending the forcible sterilization of 2 million people, lawyers for Nazi war criminals cited this law and pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, had declared such laws constitutional.

Buck v. Bell has yet to be reversed by the Supreme Court. In 1973, Roe v. Wade guaranteed women the right to make their own decisions concerning abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. The decision, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, balances the interests of the state and the woman and finds in favor of the woman's right of privacy. Nonetheless, citing Buck v. Bell, Justice Blackmun specifically denies "the claim that one has an unlimited right to do with one's body as one pleases."

Kathryn Cullen-DuPont

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cushman, Robert F. Cases in Constitutional Law, 6th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984.

Smith, J. David and K. Ray Nelson. The Sterilization of Garrie Buck: Was She Feebleminded or Society's Pawen. Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press, 1989.