I finished Adam Cohen’s terrific book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buckk, in which he examined the American Eugenics movement and the 1927 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the right of the government to limit the reproductive capacity of certain people. It is a fascinating and horrifying case.
Carrie Buck was a poor white girl who had been removed from the care of her widowed mother and placed with a foster family (who treated her as a servant). When she became pregnant at age 17 (as a result of a rape by a relative of her foster mother), her foster family requested that she be committed to the Southwest Virginia Institution for the Feeble-Minded. Obviously, the term “feeble-minded” is a vague one – and it was just as vague back in the 1920s. It was a term that had been used for decades, and advocates of the new intelligence tests also used it. Intelligence testing was still in its infancy, and unscrupulous “experts” used it in various ways. For example, in the first decade of the 20th century, one so-called “expert” was permitted to give intelligence tests to new immigrants at Ellis Island; his results, he claimed, proved that more than 60% of those immigrants were either “morons” or “imbeciles” (yes, there was a difference in those terms; “morons” were considered higher functioning than “imbeciles”). Despite the many flaws in this bureaucrat’s methodology (he didn’t take into account differences in language, education, or culture when giving these tests), Congress seized on his results to enact restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s. Some states, such as Indiana, used intelligence testing to determine who should be institutionalized, and, after 1907, who should be sterilized to prevent the creation of another generation of the “feeble-minded.”
Poor Carrie Buck was given an intelligence test, which indicated that she was an “imbecile” (interesting result, given that she had completed 6th grade before her foster parents pulled her out of school to work full-time, loved to read, and wrote beautifully, as her letters to family members and friends demonstrated); her mother, who had been sent to the same institution a few years earlier, also tested at the “imbecile” level. The fact that both mother and daughter were given the same classification thus made Carrie a perfect target for Virginia’s new sterilization law. Sadly, the baby she bore in early 1927 was also classified as an “imbecile”, although how Virginia authorities could determine that in early infancy is anybody’s guess.
Ironically, the author of Virginia’s law had his doubts as to the ethics of the law, so he urged the supervisor of the institution housing Carrie, Dr. Bell, to use Carrie as a test case to make sure it would bear constitutional scrutiny. By the spring of 1927, her case, known as Buck v. Bell, had been argued in front of the Supreme Court. The attorney for the Commonwealth of Virginia provided the Court with a great deal of information, not all of it accurate. In particular, he relied on data and arguments provided by the Race Betterment Foundation, headquartered at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York, which was the leading advocate of eugenics in the U.S.
“Eugenics” was a term coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in 1883. The eugenics movement called for social control of human breeding, or “purposeful social selection.” Influenced by both the work of Thomas Malthus (who studied population trends in the mid- 19th century), and Charles Darwin (who distanced himself from eugenics), it had a large following in Europe, and American proponents of selective breeding included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger and other Progressives. By 1914, more than 30 states had forcible sterilization laws that targeted the “hopelessly defective and criminal classes.” At the end of World War I, that war’s devastation increased the nation’s support for eugenics as it seemed that “the best and the brightest” had been mowed down in the conflict. Many supporters argued that certain immigrant groups (those from eastern and southern Europe specifically) also weakened the “American stock”. Over 300 American universities offered eugenics courses in the 1920s, and the American Eugenics Society disseminated its ideas through popular magazines, movies and comic strips; it also sponsored “Better Baby” contests, invariably awarding top prizes to blue-eyed, fair-haired, white infants. One of the best-selling books of the early 1920s was The Passing of the Great Race, whose author, Madison Grant, was an unabashed eugenicist. Eugenics even made its way into one of the classic novels of the era, The Great Gatsby: Daisy Buchanan’s philandering husband, Tom Buchanan, goes off on a drunken tirade about immigration and race during a party.
So Carrie Buck had little chance to protect her reproductive rights; her lawyer did little to defend her, and the Supreme Court, led by the highly respected Oliver Wendell Holmes, did not do anything to protect her rights either. Holmes wrote the majority decision, in which he famously stated “three generations of imbeciles is enough” (alluding to the determination by Virginia authorities that Carrie, her mother, and her own newborn daughter were all “imbeciles”), and upheld the right of states to forcibly sterilize its citizens. Carrie was sterilized, although there is little evidence she understood what the operation really was; later, her only sister also would be forcibly sterilized after being told she was going to have her appendix removed.
The popularity of the eugenics movement, however, did subside after 1927, especially after Hitler rose to power and began to implement his own version of eugenics in Germany, but the damage continued to be done at the state level. California, North Carolina, and Virginia were only three of the states that continued to forcibly sterilize its citizens, and by 1979, when the last of these draconian statutes was repealed, nearly 70,000 people (most of them poor women) had lost their reproductive rights.
Carrie Buck was released from the Virginia institution shortly after her sterilization; she never was reunited with her only daughter, who died before her 6th birthday of diptheria. Carrie married twice, held a series of jobs, and had an active social life until her own death in the early 1980s. She seemed to hold no resentment against the state officials who had not protected her, although she always regretted never having a family of her own. She would have liked to have had the right to choose to become a parent again.
The case of Buck v. Bell is an interesting lesson on the power of ideas, the state, and basic human rights.