Matthew T. Mangino: Buck v. Bell: The high court’s low point
Correction: The title of Paul Lombardo’s book was incorrect in an earlier edition of this column. The book is called “Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, The Supreme Court, and Buck V. Bell.”
There is a scene in the American film classic “Judgment at Nuremberg” where defense attorney Hans Rolfe, played by Maximilian Schell, is cross-examining a Nazi judge about the Nazi sterilization of undesirable women. Schell cites a case where the high court of another country authorized the sterilization of a “feeble-minded” woman who was the daughter of a “feeble-minded” mother. The court opinion concluded, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Schell dramatically concluded his cross-examination by revealing that the author of the opinion was the vaunted American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Judgement at Nuremberg” was a fictional account of the war crime trials of German judges. However, Justice Holmes’ opinion in Buck v. Bell - which upheld the sterilization of women in the state of Virginia - was indeed cited in Nuremberg.
During the trial of German SS Officer Otto Hofmann, his defense cited Buck v. Bell as proof that a so-called enlightened country like the U.S. was also involved in the “science” of human improvement through controlled breeding. In the U.S. we called it eugenics, in Nazi Germany it was referred to as creating the master race.
Carrie Buck was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia. She became pregnant at age 16. Her foster parents had her institutionalized as a “feeble-minded moral delinquent,” despite her claims that she had been assaulted by their nephew.
When she gave birth, her child was adopted by her foster parents. Buck was sent to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded in Lynchburg. Buck’s mother was already a resident there.
Just prior to Buck’s commitment, Virginia enacted a new law authorizing sterilization of, among others, the feeble-minded and the socially inadequate. With three generations available for examination, the colony set out to prove that the Buck women were defective. They sought to have Carrie Buck sterilized under the new law.
The Supreme Court supported Buck’s sterilization by a vote of 8 to 1. Holmes’ 1927 opinion is remembered as containing some of the most infamous language ever delivered by the high court.
According to the USA TODAY, Carrie Buck was the first victim of the 1924 sterilization law. As a result, about 8,300 Virginians were involuntarily sterilized. The law was repealed in 1974, but Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.
State laws permitting sterilization of individuals deemed unfit to reproduce - most commonly institutionalized persons with mental illness, or even conditions such as epilepsy - were common in the first half of the 20th century. According to the USA TODAY, more than 65,000 people were sterilized under such laws, which were enacted in more than 30 states.
In 2010, Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University took a close look at the plight of Carrie Buck and other women subject to draconian sterilization regulations. His book, “Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, The Supreme Court, and Buck V. Bell,” revealed that the Buck women were not feeble-minded imbeciles.
Through his research, Lombardo found report cards for Carrie and her daughter Vivian. Buck had passed each year with “very good” marks. Vivian had made the honor roll. There was nothing to suggest any mental deficiency in either of them. Unfortunately, Vivian died at age 8.
It is astonishing that the United State was, not so long ago, a leader in eugenics. Leading medical professionals, legal scholars and lawmakers subscribed to a theory that espoused terminating the reproductive rights of the mentally ill, intellectually disabled or other “undesirables.”
Even more appalling, Holmes, a civil war hero himself, would in the wake of the horrors of World War I, introduce his argument in support of sterilization in the following manner, “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices.”
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.