Buck v. Bell 1927

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Buck v. Bell 1927

Appellant: Carrie Buck

Appellee: Dr. J. H. Bell

Appellant's Claim: That Virginia's eugenic sterilization law violated Carrie Buck's right to equal protection of the laws and due process provided by the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Irving Whitehead

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: Aubrey E. Strode

Justices for the Court: Louis D. Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Clark McReynolds, Edward T. Sanford, Harlan F. Stone, George Sutherland, William H. Taft, Willis Van Devanter

Justices Dissenting: Pierce Butler

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 thirty states, under which 50,000 U.S. citizens were sterilized without their consent. During the Nuremberg war trials following World War II (1939–45) , German lawyers cited the decision as a precedent for the sterilization of two million people in its "Rassenhygiene" (race hygiene) program. U.S. sterilization programs continued into the 1970s.

Sterilization of "Mental Defectives"

In a 1927 letter written shortly after the Buck v. Bell decision, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "One decision . . . gave me pleasure, establishing the constitutionality of a law permitting the sterilization [to make incapable of producing children] of imbeciles." "Imbeciles," "feebleminded," and "mental defectives" were harsh terms frequently used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when referring to persons with mental retardation (MR). A fear of allowing persons with MR to have children grew from the eugenics movement in the late nineteenth century. Based on newly developing scientific theories concerning heredity, the movement sought to control mating and reproduction to improve both physical and mental qualities of the general human population. By the 1910s a scientific foundation for eugenics had accumulated data based on studies of generations of "mental defectives." Experts called for sterilization of the "feebleminded" as the best way to stop future generations of "mental defectives."

Consequently, personal decisions of the mentally retarded about becoming parents and raising children became increasingly subjected to government regulation. State laws were passed directing others to make these choices for them. Several state asylums (institutions housing persons with MR and other mental problems) began sterilizing their patients. By 1917 twelve states passed sterilization laws.

Dr. Albert Priddy

Central to the drive for population improvement through the eugenics movement and sterilization was Dr. Albert Priddy, superintendent of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded at Lynchburg, Virginia. During the 1910s, with encouragement of the colony's board of directors, Priddy sterilized some seventy-five to one hundred young women without their consent. However, the Virginia legislature had not clearly endorsed sterilization and Priddy discontinued the operations in 1918. Priddy, his friend Aubrey Strode who was a state legislator and chief administrator of the colony, and the eugenical community pressured the legislature for a clear sterilization law. With the state experiencing budget problems, Priddy's group proposed a law that provided for release after sterilization of individuals who otherwise might require permanent costly stays at the Colony.

In 1924 the Virginia Assembly enacted a law permitting forced sterilization of "feebleminded" or "socially inadequate person[s]." The law outlined the process to be followed including appointing a guardian, hearings, and court appeals. Three generations of the Buck family living in Virginia soon became entangled in this legal web.

The Bucks

Emma Buck, the widowed mother of three small children, supported her children through prostitution and charity until they were finally taken from her. Three year-old Carrie Buck, Emma's daughter, went to live with J. T. and Alice Dobbs. Carrie progressed normally through five years of school before being taken out so she could assume more household duties. The Dobbs were completely satisfied with Carrie until at age seventeen she claimed she had been raped by the Dobbs' son and became pregnant. A Binet-Simon I. Q. test revealed Carrie's mental age as nine. As soon as Carrie's baby, Vivian, was born the Dobbs had Carrie committed to the Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in 1924. Only four years earlier, Carrie's mother had been found to have a mental age of eight and was confined at the same institution.

Concluding Carrie had inherited her feeblemindedness from her mother and that baby Vivian had no doubt inherited the same condition, Dr. Priddy saw Carrie as a perfect test case for Virginia's new sterilization law. He recommended she be sterilized because she was feebleminded and a "moral delinquent."

The Perfect Test Case

Dr. Priddy's recommendation met with the Colony board's approval. They hired Aubrey Strode to represent the Colony and Irving Whitehead, former Colony board member and friend of Strode, to represent Carrie.

In November of 1924, Buck v. Priddy was argued before the Circuit Court of Amherst. Strode called eight witnesses and presented one expert's written testimony. Carrie was characterized as having inherited her feeblemindedness from her mother. Although Carries's baby, Vivian, was only eight months old, she was likewise described as "not quite a normal baby." Carrie, already having one illegitimate child, was described as the "potential parent of [more] socially inadequate offspring." Dr. Priddy testified that Carrie, "would cease to be a charge on society if sterilized. It would remove one potential source" of more feebleminded offspring.

Whitehead made no defense for Carrie neglecting to point out her church attendance and normal school record. Although he would be required to argue for Carrie in the higher courts, Whitehead really sought the same result as Priddy and Strode. They intended to appeal the case through all the courts hoping to receive total support for the sterilization law.

The Circuit Court upheld the law and ordered the sterilization of Carrie Buck. Whitehead appealed in 1925 to the Supreme Court of Appeals of the State of Virginia which upheld the Circuit Court decision. The case was now Buck v. Bell because Dr. Priddy had died and Dr. J. H. Bell had taken his place at the Colony. Whitehead next appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

In the brief (a summary outlining the essential information) he submitted to the Supreme Court, Whitehead claimed that the Virginia law was void (should no longer be law) because it denied Carrie due process of law and equal protection of the laws, rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment states that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person . . . equal protection of the laws." Due process means a person must have fair legal proceedings. Equal protection means persons or groups of persons in similar situations must be treated equally by the laws.

Strode's brief countered that Carrie had been given a great deal of due process and that the state could make sterilization decisions for people like Carrie without violating equal protection. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the 8-1 opinion upholding the Virginia sterilization law.

After reviewing the long process the law requires a superintendent of a hospital or colony to follow before carrying out sterilization, Holmes concluded due process was not violated. Holmes wrote,

There can be no doubt that so far as procedure is concerned the rights of the patient are most carefully considered, and . . . every step in this case was taken in scrupulous compliance with the statute [followed exactly the procedures outlined by the law].

Holmes similarly rejected the claim of equal protection violation saying the law treated all persons in similar situations as Carrie.

Agreeing with the philosophy of eugenics, Justice Holmes proclaimed that society must be protected from "being swamped with incompetence." He wrote, "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 . . . three generations of imbeciles are enough [referring to the three Bucks]."

What Became of Carrie Buck?

Dr. Bell sterilized Carrie Buck in October of 1927 and then released her from the Colony. She married William Davis Eagle in 1932 and, after his


Eugenics is a science theory developed in the late nineteenth century concerned with improving hereditary qualities of the human population by encouraging persons who are considered above average mentally and physically to have more children and discouraging offspring from parents of lesser mental and physical abilities. Francis Galton began using the term in 1883 which is Greek meaning good birth. Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection introduced in 1859 provided the basic concepts behind eugenics. Galton reasoned that society's sympathy and caring for the weak stopped proper natural selection in mankind. This allowed "inferior" humans to live and reproduce when they otherwise would have been selected against and eliminated. Therefore, eugenics is a replacement of natural selection with conscious, controlled selection of desirable characteristics and the elimination of undesirable ones.

By 1931 eugenicists had convinced American states to pass sterilization laws barring "flawed" individuals from reproducing. Worldwide, by the mid-1930s Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany followed suit. In 1933 Germany had passed the Hereditary Health Law. In the name of eugenics, Germany's Adolf Hitler sterilized and murdered millions in the 1930s and 1940s.

While sterilizations were no longer practiced, eugenic organizations still exist in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. New forms of selecting hereditary traits appeared such as the widely accepted practice of aborting a fetus (unborn child) if found to have a disability and through sperm selection from sperm donor banks for methods of artificial conception.

death, married Charlie Detamore. Later recollections of her minister, neighbors, friends, and health care providers plus letters she wrote to the Virginia colony seeking custody of her mother all suggest Carrie was truly not "feebleminded."

At least twenty-seven other states and several countries passed laws similar to Virginia's resulting in forced sterilization of thousands of people. By the mid-twentieth century Americans had become more sensitive to and educated about the needs of persons with MR. By the 1960s people with MR began to mainstream into a more normal everyday life in schools and with their families. Sterilization of persons with MR still continued in the United States until the mid-1970s. However, by the close of the twentieth century the Buck v. Bell decision had not yet been overturned.

Suggestions for further reading

Brantlinger, Ellen A. Sterilization of People with Mental Disabilities. Westport, CT: Auburn House Publications, 1995.

Eugenics Watch. [Online] Website: http://www.africa2000.com/ENDX/endx.htm (Accessed on July 31, 2000).

Field, Martha A., and Valerie A. Sanchez. Equal Treatment for People with Mental Retardation: Having and Raising Children. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Future Generations. [Online] Website: http://www.eugenics.net (Accessed on July 31, 2000).

Smith, J. David, and K. Ray Nelson. The Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press, 1989.