Why you should care
Because sterilizing three generations of Americans under false pretenses and shoddy science was more than enough.
“It is better for all the world, if … society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. opined in Buck v. Bell (1927). In concluding that teenager Carrie Buck and her mother and infant daughter were “feeble-minded” and that the state of Virginia had the authority to sterilize Buck, Holmes memorably proclaimed that “[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Over the next half-century, Holmes’ decision would provide the legal authority to sterilize more than 60,000 Americans, and set precedent for more than half a million other surgeries across the globe. At Nuremberg, lawyers for Nazi scientists cited the opinion in defense of their radical programs. As it turned out, Carrie Buck was no imbecile — but rather a pawn in an elaborate conspiracy of doctors, lawyers and scientists hoping to terminate the reproductive rights of those they deemed socially unfit.
In less than three pages, Holmes declared that sterilization was justified to avoid society “being swamped with incompetence.”
As Paul Lombardo documents in Three Generations, No Imbeciles, Justice Holmes was merely the last in a string of misguided men responsible for the shameful case. The goal of the eugenics movement at the time was to improve the population’s genetic composition by preventing those deemed “mentally defective” from reproducing. Harry Laughlin, director of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in New York and an advocate for sterilization — who later received an honorary degree in Nazi Germany — crafted a model sterilization law in 1914 authorizing surgery on the feebleminded and “socially inadequate.”
Taking up Laughlin’s crusade in Virginia was Aubrey Strode, a state legislator who had helped create the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in 1906 and, in 1924, helped usher through Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act, based on Laughlin’s model statute. Knowing the law needed a test case to seal its legitimacy, Strode turned to the Colony’s director, Dr. Albert Priddy. Priddy submitted a list of 18 possible candidates for sterilization — all women. Among them was 17-year-old Carrie Buck. Priddy considered Buck to be “feebleminded of the lowest grade Moron class,” and since her mother, Emma, was also a Colony resident (bolstering the case for hereditary imbecility), Carrie was selected to be the first person sterilized under the new law.
A legal challenge was then arranged on Buck’s behalf. As the Colony’s lawyer, Strode would argue for the defense, and as Buck’s attorney and his opponent in the case, Strode chose Irving Whitehead, a childhood friend and founding board member of the Colony. When the case went to trial in November 1924, Whitehead called no witnesses and offered no evidence on Buck’s behalf. Despite the fact that only two of Strode’s first seven witnesses had even met Buck, Whitehead made little objection, and his cross-examination merely expanded the findings against her. Based on the trial transcript, “You could reach the conclusion that there was a lot of winking and nodding going on,” Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University, tells OZY. “These are two experienced attorneys, and one of them seems to be making the case for the other one.”
There is no evidence to suggest, says Lombardo, that Whitehead looked into Buck’s past or even interviewed his own client. If he had, he might have discovered Buck’s report cards indicated she was a well-behaved, average student, a girl who got pregnant at 16 after being raped by the nephew of her foster parents, who committed her to the Colony after she gave birth (keeping the allegedly “feebleminded” child).
As scholars Randall Hansen and Desmond King chronicle in Sterilized by the State, with no need to worry about a zealous opponent, Strode paraded a slew of eugenics experts into the courtroom to bolster his case. The star expert witness, a colleague of Laughlin’s at ERO, was Arthur Estabrook, who after a “brief study” of the three generations of Buck women concluded the “germ plasm” they had inherited carried a “defective strain,” and who deemed Vivian, a 6-month-old infant, “below average.” Estabrook, who labeled Buck a “moral degenerate,” double-billed the state and his employer for his services and was eventually fired for philandering and corruption.
When the trial ended, the court held that Buck was “the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring” under the statute and should therefore be sterilized. On appeal, the case landed before the most celebrated judge in America, 86-year-old Oliver Wendell Holmes. In an opinion of less than three pages, citing just one case and no relevant science, Holmes declared that sterilization was justified to avoid society “being swamped with incompetence.”
Carrie Buck was sterilized on Oct. 19, 1927, and it would take almost 50 years before Virginia repealed its sterilization statute in 1974 (though Buck v. Bell has never been overturned).
When asked during the trial to define a “socially inadequate” person, Dr. Estabrook testified it would include anyone who “is unable to maintain themselves according to the accepted rules of society.” By that definition, each of the men who condemned Carrie Buck could today be judged socially inadequate and manifestly unfit for their professions. Thankfully we are no longer swamped with their incompetence.