Buck v. Bell

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Buck v. Bell
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 22, 1927
Decided May 2, 1927
Full case name Carrie Buck v. John Hendren Bell, Superintendent of State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded
Citations 274 U.S. 200 (more)
47 S. Ct. 584; 71 L. Ed. 1000; 1927 U.S. LEXIS 20
Prior history Error to the Supreme Court of Appeals of the State of Virginia
The Court upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization of the unfit "for the protection and health of the state."
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Holmes, joined by Taft, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Sanford, Stone
Dissent Butler
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), is a decision of the United States Supreme Court, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in which the Court ruled that a state statute permitting compulsory sterilization of the unfit, including the intellectually disabled, "for the protection and health of the state" did not violate the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The decision was largely seen as an endorsement of negative eugenics—the attempt to improve the human race by eliminating "defectives" from the gene pool.

The Supreme Court has never expressly overruled Buck v. Bell. However, in the last 50 years, both federal and state courts have severely criticized and questioned the legal reasoning underlying the decision. (See cases collected in Jeffrey F. Ghent, "Validity of statutes authorizing asexualization or sterilization of criminals or mental defectives," 53 A.L.R.3d 960.)


The concept of eugenics had been put forward in 1883 by Francis Galton, who also coined the name.[1] The trend first became popular in Europe, but also found proponents in the United States by the start of the 20th century. Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization statute (1907), but it was legally flawed. To remedy this situation, Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, designed a model eugenic law that was reviewed by legal experts. In 1924 the Commonwealth of Virginia adopted a statute authorizing the compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled for the purpose of eugenics. This 1924 statute was closely based on Laughlin's model.[2] Looking to determine if the new law would pass a legal challenge, on September 10, 1924 Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, superintendent[3] of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to his Board of Directors to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old patient at his institution who he claimed had a mental age of 9. Priddy maintained that Buck represented a genetic threat to society. According to Priddy, Buck's 52-year-old mother possessed a mental age of 8 and had a record of prostitution and immorality. She had three children without good knowledge of their parentage. Carrie, one of these children, had been adopted and attended school for five years, reaching the level of sixth grade. However, according to Priddy, she had eventually proved to be "incorrigible" and eventually gave birth to an illegitimate child. Her adopted family had committed her to the State Colony as "feeble-minded", no longer feeling capable of caring for her. It was later discovered that Carrie's pregnancy was not caused by any "immorality" on her own part. In the summer of 1923, while her adoptive mother was away "on account of some illness," her adoptive mother's nephew raped Carrie, and Carrie's later commitment has been seen as an attempt by the family to save their reputation.[citation needed]

The case[edit]

While the litigation was making its way through the court system, Priddy died and his successor, Dr. John Hendren Bell, took up the case. The Board of Directors issued an order for the sterilization of Buck, and her guardian appealed the case to the Circuit Court of Amherst County, which sustained the decision of the Board. The case then moved to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia.

The appellate court sustained the sterilization law as compliant with both the state and federal constitutions, and it then went to the United States Supreme Court. Buck and her guardian contended that the due process clause guarantees all adults the right to procreate which was being violated. They also made the argument that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment was being violated since not all similarly situated people were being treated the same. The sterilization law was only for the "feeble-minded" at certain state institutions and made no mention of other state institutions or those who were not in an institution.

On May 2, 1927, in an 8-1 decision, the Court accepted that she, her mother and her daughter were "feeble-minded" and "promiscuous,"[4] and that it was in the state's interest to have her sterilized. The ruling legitimized Virginia's sterilization procedures until they were repealed in 1974.

The ruling was written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In support of his argument that the interest of the states in a "pure" gene pool outweighed the interest of individuals in their bodily integrity, he argued:

Holmes concluded his argument by declaring that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough".[5] The sole dissenter in the court, Justice Pierce Butler, a devout Catholic,[6] did not write a dissenting opinion: the practice of a Justice's noting a dissent without opinion was much more common than it would be in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Carrie Buck was operated upon, receiving a compulsory salpingectomy (a form of tubal ligation). She was later paroled from the institution as a domestic worker to a family in Bland, Virginia. She was an avid reader until her death in 1983. Her daughter Vivian had been pronounced "feeble minded" after a cursory examination by ERO field worker Dr. Arthur Estabrook,[7] thus the "three generations" of the majority opinion. It is worthy of noting that the child did very well in school for the two years that she attended (she died of complications from measles in 1932), even being listed on her school's honor roll in April 1931.[8]

Historian Paul A. Lombardo argued in 1985 that Buck was not "feeble-minded" at all, but that she had been put away to hide her rape, perpetrated by the nephew of her adoptive mother.[9] He also asserted that Buck's lawyer, Irving Whitehead, poorly argued her case, failed to call important witnesses, and was remarked by commentators to often not know what side he was on. It is now thought that this was not because of incompetence, but deliberate.[10] Whitehead had close connections to the counsel for the institution and to Priddy. Whitehead was a member of the governing board of the state institution in which Buck resided, and had personally authorized Priddy's sterilization requests and was a strong supporter of eugenic sterilization.[citation needed]

The effect of the ruling[edit]

Dr. John H. Bell was the superintendent at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.

The effect of Buck v. Bell was to legitimize eugenic sterilization laws in the United States as a whole. While many states already had sterilization laws on their books, their use was erratic and effects practically non-existent in every state except for California. After Buck v. Bell, dozens of states added new sterilization statutes, or updated their constitutionally non-functional ones already enacted, with statutes which more closely mirrored the Virginia statute upheld by the Court.[11]

The Virginia statute which the ruling of Buck v. Bell supported was designed in part by the eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, superintendent of Charles Benedict Davenport's Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Laughlin had, a few years previously, conducted a number of studies on the enforcement of sterilization legislation throughout the country and had concluded that the reason for their lack of use was primarily that the physicians who would order the sterilizations were afraid of prosecution by patients whom they operated upon. Laughlin saw the need to create a "Model Law"[12] which could withstand a test of constitutional scrutiny, clearing the way for future sterilization operations. Adolf Hitler closely modelled his Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring on Laughlin's "Model Law". The Third Reich held Laughlin in such regard that they arranged for him to receive an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1936. At the Nuremberg trials after World War II, Nazi doctors explicitly cited Holmes's opinion in Buck v. Bell as part of their defense.[13]

Sterilization rates under eugenic laws in the United States climbed from 1927 until Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535 (1942). While Skinner v. Oklahoma did not specifically overturn Buck v. Bell, it created enough of a legal quandary to discourage many sterilizations. By 1963, sterilization laws were almost wholly out of use, though some remained officially on the books for many years. Language referring to eugenics was removed from Virginia's law, but compulsory sterilization under exceptional circumstances is still practiced[clarification needed] in the Commonwealth.[14]

The story of Carrie Buck's sterilization and the court case was made into a television drama in 1994, Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story. It was also referred to in 1934's sensational film Tomorrow's Children.

Although this opinion and eugenics remains controversial, the decision in this case still stands. Buck v. Bell was cited as a precedent by the opinion of the court (part VIII) in Roe v. Wade, but not in support of abortion rights. To the contrary, Justice Blackmun quoted it to justify that the constitutional right to abortion isn't unlimited. [15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Galton, Francis (1883), Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, London: Macmillan, p. 199 .
  2. ^ Eugenics Archive, retrieved October 16, 2009 
  3. ^ http://www.cvtc.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/ Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded
  4. ^ The court's majority opinion states that the court accepted the diagnoses of the Virginia medical personnel, not looking into whether they were correct: "Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony above mentioned in due form. She is the daughter of a feeble-minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child." 274 U.S. 200 at page 205
  5. ^ 274 U.S. 200, at 207, Justia.com U.S. Supreme Court Center.
  6. ^ [1] "Silent Protest: A Catholic Justice Dissents in Buck v. Bell"
  7. ^ according to his report, Vivian "showed backwardness". Eugenics Archive
  8. ^ Eugenics Archive
  9. ^ Lombardo, Paul A. (1985), "Three Generations, No Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell", New York University Law Review 60 (1): 30–62 
  10. ^ Murdoch, Stephen (2007), IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea, pp. 108–109 
  11. ^ Quinn, Peter (February/March 2003). "Race Cleansing in America" American Heritage. Retrieved 7-27-2010.
  12. ^ http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~wellerst/laughlin/ Harvard website
  13. ^ Bruinius, Harry (2007). Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-375-71305-7. 
  14. ^ Kaelber, Lutz. "Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States - Virginia". Lutz Kaelber, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Vermont. Retrieved 2013-05-14. 
  15. ^ "Roe v. Wade". cornell.edu. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Text of Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia