Carrie Buck, of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, was born to poverty in 1906 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her father soon abandoned the family, and her mother was institutionalized for “feeblemindedness” and promiscuity while Carrie was still young. Carrie was adopted by a foster family, and at eighteen she was raped and became pregnant.
On grounds of her allegedly deficient intellect, her incorrigibility, and her promiscuity, her foster family had her committed, like her mother, to the “Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded” near Lynchburg. She gave birth to a daughter, Vivian, who was also adopted by Carrie’s foster family.
In that same year, 1924, the state legislature passed a law allowing the state to involuntarily sterilize the “unfit,” and the colony’s director, Dr. Albert Sydney Priddy, selected Carrie as the first patient to undergo the procedure. Opponents of the legislation filed a challenge, and the case made its way through the courts until it arrived at the Supreme Court in 1927.
Dr. Priddy had died in the meantime, leaving Dr. John Hendren Bell, his replacement as director, to continue the case. It was the heyday of the eugenics movement, and the ability to scientifically plan the transmission of genes from generation to generation, in order to improve the genetic makeup of society, was understood to be a boon to society. “Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” wrote Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the majority opinion. The court ruled in favor of Bell, and against Buck, 8-1.
The single dissenting vote came from Justice Pierce Butler, a committed Catholic. Before the case had been decided, Holmes had worried, “Butler knows this is good law; I wonder whether he will have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion.”
Butler and “his religion” were vindicated, to a degree, after World War II, when the popularity of eugenics – so enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis – waned. Buck v. Bell was never overturned, but state eugenic laws quickly fell into general disuse, although the practice was continued in California prisons as late as 2010. In 2002, a historical marker was placed at Buck’s birthplace in Charlottesville, and the governor of Virginia issued an apology for the state’s eugenic practices.
Justice Holmes was a progressive, as was the eugenics movement in general. Eugenics was touted by the major progressive figures, including presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, and was a primary motivator for Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (a fact that today nearly always goes unmentioned).
The attempt to disassociate eugenics from progressivism has sometimes become comical. Despite an otherwise superb essay on the case, Stephen Jay Gould includes the fatuous claim that, “We usually regard eugenics as a conservative movement and its most vocal critics as members of the left.” Still, he concedes, “Eugenics, touted in its day as the latest in scientific modernism, attracted many liberals and numbered among its most vociferous critics groups often labeled as reactionary and antiscientific.”
Yet if the movement itself is discredited, the philosophy behind it is still embraced. Forty-five years later, the Supreme Court ruled on another case involving women and the bearing of children. If Buck v. Bell took control of childbearing from a woman and gave it to the state, Roe v. Wade claimed to do precisely the opposite.
Nevertheless, dissent in both cases was derided as factious and retrograde, while the victors were hailed as the advocates of “progressive” society, and in both cases it was the generation of new life, that sacred human gift, that was spurned. Eugenics may no longer be widely embraced, but voluntary sterilization and the elimination of “misfit” human life has never been more acceptable, as can be seen in the ubiquity of contraception and the appalling abortion rates of children with Down’s syndrome. The bad name eugenics currently has seems, sadly, to not be due to a greater appreciation for life.
Justtice Pierce Butler
Carrie Buck was later paroled from the institution, found work, and married. It was revealed that her rapist had been a nephew of her foster family; her commitment had been intended to keep his identity, and the family’s embarrassment, secret. He was never prosecuted.
Her lawyer, who observers had noted performed remarkably poorly, turned out to be an advocate of eugenics and a board member of the institution where she was committed. Her sister Doris was also sterilized secretly during an appendectomy, and never had any children, not discovering the reason until 1980.
In a letter to Stephen Jay Gould, law professor Paul Lombardo described meeting Carrie Buck shortly before her death: “When I met her she was reading newspapers daily and joining a more literate friend to assist at regular bouts with the crossword puzzles. She was not a sophisticated woman, and lacked social graces, but mental health professionals who examined her in later life confirmed my impressions that she was neither mentally ill nor retarded.”
Carrie Buck died in 1983, at 76. Vivian, her only daughter and the third of Holmes’ “three generations of imbeciles,” led an ordinary child’s elementary school career in Charlottesville. She died of illness in 1932, at age eight.