Today in 1927: The Supreme Court upholds compulsory sterilization for the “feeble-minded”

May 2, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryOver the course of its long history, the Supreme Court has made some contentious and unpopular rulings.

There is, of course, 1944’s notorious Korematsu v. U.S., which upheld the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.

And let’s not forget 1857’s Dred Scott v. Sandford, which ruled that African Americans, whether slave or free, were not citizens of the United States.

Also among the Court’s rulings supporting racial injustice is 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the segregationist policy of “separate, but equal.”

Then there are those rulings that, while not universally scorned, are certainly strongly decried among certain groups in society.  One of the more notable of these cases is 1973’s Roe v. Wade (which is, admittedly, celebrated, not disdained, in other circles).

Even in recent history, the Supreme Court has issued rulings that have been received quite negatively by the public – 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC being the most obvious example.

But there is another ruling by the Supreme Court that certainly reaches the same level of appall that any of those cases above may generate, but is far less known among the general public – or even the legal community.

That case, Buck v. Bell, is celebrating its 87th birthday today, having been decided on May 2, 1927.

So what is it about Buck that makes it so atrocious?  The Court ruled that it was constitutionally permissible for the state of Virginia to forcibly sterilize the “unfit” to prevent “feebleminded” and “socially inadequate” individuals from having children.

The case began when Carrie Buck, who had been institutionalized months earlier, was listed as a candidate for sterilization; Buck, who was described by the state as “feeble-minded” (an outdated term that is used as a catch-all for not only those with mental impairments, but also for those who may not comply with societal norms), challenged the law which authorized her compulsory sterilization.

The circumstances of Buck’s institutionalization are very noteworthy: Buck’s foster mother noticed that her foster child (then 17 years old) was pregnant.  When Buck’s pregnancy could no longer be hidden, the foster parents decided to have Buck institutionalized – on the grounds that she was a moral delinquent whom her foster parents could neither control nor afford.

However, rather than lacking “moral sense and responsibility,” as was asserted of her during the court battles, Buck was raped by her foster mother’s nephew – which resulted in the pregnancy to begin with.

Making the situation worse for Buck was the fact that her attorney had close ties to the eugenics movement (which strongly supported sterilization of the “feeble-minded”).  Buck’s attorney reported failed to call any witnesses for her side and poorly argued the case in general.

Of course, the eight justices of the Supreme Court who joined in the majority opinion not only seemed to have no qualms with the viewpoints behind the state law, but also appeared to take some zeal in affirming it.

Although the opinion is brief, it isn’t short on support for the eugenics movement.  For example, the Court finds the state of Virginia perfectly justified in sterilizing institutionalized patients “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity, imbecility, etc.,” when it is for “the best interest of the patients and of society.”

The opinion’s author, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote that

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.

Justice Holmes then concludes with the famous line, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  Buck was sterilized following the ruling.

Although Buck has never been explicitly overruled, state sterilization statutes have all since been repealed, and the ruling itself is unanimously denounced today.

Thus, it seems, Buck was a product of a flawed attitude that gripped much of society at the time of its ruling – an attitude that has since been erased by society’s (eventual) conscience.

We can only hope that other similar Supreme Court rulings – those widely condemned – are later rendered inert by society’s evolving scruples.