Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927)

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BUCK v. BELL 274 U.S. 200 (1927)

In Buck the Supreme Court upheld, 8–1, a Virginia law authorizing the sterilization of institutionalized mental defectives without their consent. Justice oliver wendell holmes, for the Court, wrote an opinion notable for epigram and insensitivity. Virginia's courts had ordered the sterilization of a "feeble minded" woman, whose mother and child were similarly afflicted, finding that she was "the probable potential parent of socially inadequate off-spring," and that sterilization would promote both her welfare and society's. Holmes, the Civil War veteran, remarked that public welfare might "call upon the best citizens for their lives"; these "lesser sacrifices" were justified to prevent future crime and starvation. There was no violation of substantive due process. Citing jacobson v. massachusetts (1905), he said, "The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.… Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Turning to equal protection, which he called "the usual last resort of constitutional arguments," Holmes saw no violation in the law's reaching only institutionalized mental defectives and not others: "the law does all that is needed when it does all that it can." Justice pierce butler noted his dissent.

Although Buck continues to be cited, its current authority as precedent is doubtful.

(See skinner v. oklahoma. )

Kenneth L. Karst


Cynkar, Robert J. 1981 Buck v. Bell: "Felt Necessities" v. Fundamental Values? Columbia Law Review 81:1418–1461.

Gould, Stephen Jay 1984 Carrie Buck's Daughter. Natural History July:14–18.

Lombardo, Paul A. 1985 Three Generations, No Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell. New York University Law Review 60:30–62.