“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” That was written in 1927 by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the 8-1 majority ruling allowing the state of Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck, a poorly educated, 20-year-old working class girl.
The case, Buck v. Bell, delivered a “clarion call to Americans to identify those among them who should not be allowed to reproduce — and to sterilize them in large numbers,” Adam Cohen writes in “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck” (Penguin Press, $28).
Cohen’s book is a basic primer on the American eugenics movement. A former member of The New York Times’ editorial board, he sees the eugenics crusade in America as a combination of Boston-Brahmin elitism, anti-immigrant nativism and bad science assumed to be true simply because it was presented as science.
The eugenics movement was the intellectual craze that believed that the unfit must be eliminated by the state through limiting immigration of “inferior” racial elements from Eastern Europe, with emphasis on Jews and Italians, and sterilization of a long list of people so that they could not pass on “defective” traits: epilepsy, poverty, alcoholism, blindness, hearing difficulties or simply laziness.
Carrie Buck was born in Virginia in 1906. Her mother raised her on her own, and they drifted through the poorest neighborhoods. Carrie was eventually taken and placed with a family where she worked as a servant. In 1920, Carrie’s mother was taken in by the courts — possibly for vagrancy, possibly for prostitution. She was deemed “mentally peculiar” and placed in Virginia’s “Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded” where she would spend the rest of her life.
Carrie would in turn end up at the Colony when she became pregnant after being raped by a relative of her foster family. She gave birth to a baby girl, Vivian. Thus leading to Holmes’ judgment about “three generations of imbeciles,” though Cohen makes clear that there was no evidence that Carrie, her mother or her daughter, suffered from anything more than poverty and a lack of education.
The eugenic authorities at the Colony determined that Carrie would make the perfect argument for state-enforced sterilization under the Virginia law they had helped to draft. The case went up to the Supreme Court, and Carrie lost.
Carrie was sterilized soon thereafter. Authorities at the Colony never told her that the surgery she underwent would prevent her from having additional children. Carrie Buck died in 1983.
The eugenics crusade is an element of American history we conveniently choose to ignore. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is in the American Parthenon of secular saints, along with Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood founder and prominent eugenics proponent who believed that America’s salvation could be found in blocking the lower classes from breeding.
Cohen notes that the only organized voice to speak out against state-mandated sterilization at the time was the Catholic Church. The one dissenting vote to Holmes’ decision was cast by the sole Catholic on the court, Pierce Butler.
There is a direct link from the eugenics crusade to the birth control and Zero Population Growth culture of the 1950s and ’60s, the abortion and euthanasia crusade that grew out of it, and today’s right-to-die movement. And Cohen reminds us that Buck v. Bell has never been overturned. “Federal courts are still ruling that the government has the right to forcibly sterilize — and citing Buck v. Bell.”
Enough is apparently not enough.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.