Two 50-minute class periods

Eugenics and Civic Biology: An Exploration of Buck vs. Bell

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Deconstruct and interpret a historical document;
  • Use tools of drama/theater to interpret this document in multiple ways;
  • Examine how legalistic language and reasoning can mask US policy decisions that have a profound impact on people's health, lives, and rights;
  • Explore how eugenical thinking influenced the Supreme Court's decision in Buck v. Bell.


This lesson outline encourages students to explore the historical implications of the modern eugenics movement. Students can develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which the idea of "race" influenced public policy in the United States throughout the first half of the 20th century. Readings include selections from Race and Membership in American History, as well as the full text of Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' landmark decision regarding forced sterilization in the Buck v.Bell case.


At least a basic understanding of the eugenics movement in the USA will be necessary prior to students engaging in the below activity, including a preliminary look at the role "feeble-mindedness" and intelligence testing played in eugenical thinking. Good background reading from Race and Membership includes:

  • Chapter 3, Evolution, ‘Progress,' and Eugenics, including the readings "Race Improvement," "Eugenics and the Promise of ‘Progress," "Tracking Inherited Traits," and "All in the Family."
  • Chapter 5, Eugenics and the Power of Testing, including the readings "Targeting the ‘Unfit,'" "Identifying the ‘Unfit,'" "Revising the Test," and "Fears of Declining Intelligence."


Teaching Strategies


Introductory discussion:

Students should read the two selections from Chapter 6 of Race and Membership that was mentioned above for background information on the model sterilization law, on Carrie Buck, and on the Supreme Court Case, Buck v. Bell. In addition, time permitting, screen clip from the film The Lynchburg Story. (Note: the entire film is good, but there is a useful 12-13 minute clip towards the beginning that summarizes Buck v. Bell in context - the clip starts approximately 9.5 minutes into the film, when Dr. Paul Lombardo of the University of Virginia is introduced, and it ends right before the film turns to Nazi Germany.) A discussion of these pieces will introduce the primary activity described below. After reading/viewing these pieces, the following points should be underscored:

  • Harry Laughlin, his colleagues at the Eugenics Record Office, and eugenicists in the USA believed that feeble-minded, immoral, criminal, and diseased people should not procreate, or else the American "stock" would decrease in quality.
  • The tools used to identify these "inferior traits," such as the I.Q. test, are fundamentally flawed and biased. In addition, most of these "inferior traits" are influenced more by environment than genetics.
  • In order to prevent the quality of American "stock" from declining, eugenicists pushed for state sterilization laws. The goal of the sterilization laws was to forcibly perform surgery on men or women deemed inferior, so that they could not procreate and pollute the gene pool.
  • The Virginia sterilization law was the test case to go in front of the Supreme Court. The Court's 1927 ruling stated that Virginia's sterilization law was constitutional, and it opened the floodgates. By 1934, 24 states passed similar laws, and more than 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the United States through the 1970s.
  • Carrie Buck, the woman named in the case, was a victim. Her pregnancy was the result of rape. There is no reliable evidence that she or her child or her mother were "feeble-minded," a word that carries no real scientific meaning, anyway. Furthermore, both the prosecution and the defense in her case supported her sterilization and Virginia's law. The case was deliberately framed by both sides so the Court would approve the law.

Reader's Theater Activity using Buck v. Bell
1) Students should read silently the handout of the complete Buck v. Bell majority decision by Holmes. This document is very difficult. The introductory reading from Race and Membership, "'Three Generations of Imbeciles,'" excerpts this document and contextualizes it, so the students should already know the main points. As students read through this silently the teacher may ask them to circle or underline words or phrases they aren't familiar with. Another option is to ask them, after reading it, to write a reflection about this document - how difficult or easy was it to understand? How is this legal document written differently than other documents they may have read? How is its tone different? How is the vocabulary different?

2) Students should be divided into groups of no less than 3 and no more than 5 students each. Let's say that leaves you with 5 total groups. The Buck v. Bell handout should be marked on the margins so that each part of the text is assigned a number from 1 to 5 to correspond to one of these five groups. (Try not to the various titles and the first paragraph. In other words, begin with the paragraph, "Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman..." and mark the rest of the text from there, starting with "1" and going all the way through "5" until the entire piece is "covered"). Each group will be assigned the text that corresponds to their number, so that almost all of the text will be assigned. See this example.

(NOTE: if you have more than 5 groups, you can also add to this activity the Model Sterilization Law, which will give you more groups. You can find excerpts of this document on page 192-3 of Race and Membership.)

3) Now explain to the students, as they break into their groups, what they will be doing. The activity is called Reader's Theater. It is usually an activity used with literature (memoir, fiction, or poetry). It can be a risky activity for some students, and for the teacher as well. If you like the idea behind this activity, you "try it out" throughout the year by using some easier, less risky pieces, so the students get used to the process. For a full explanation of this activity, you can find a description here:

4) Say the following to the students. You may also want to turn the directions below into a ditto to pass out:

Each group will be reading aloud your section of text to the class. You will have time to prepare your group's excerpt. In order to do this, your group needs to decide what is important about your text and what is not so important. What do you want to emphasize and what don't you? During your reading you may:

  • Repeat key words, phrases or sentences.
  • Skip key words phrases or sentences.
  • Read some or all of your selection as a group, as part of a group, or as individuals.
  • Alter the order of the text.
  • Position yourselves around the room as you see fit.

Do not, however, add or make up any text that isn't there. You may borrow a phrase or two from another group's excerpt, if necessary. While you may and indeed should consider how you are positioning yourselves as you read, and how you are moving, if at all, do not consider this a play. It is a reading.

Every student in the group must participate in at least some part of your group's reading.

5) They will need time to prep and practice. This requires either private space for each group, or, if there is no private space available, you will need to assign the preparation and practice for homework, which means that you want to give the groups a good week to find time outside of school hours.

6) Right before the readings begin, tell them:

We will start with group one. When group one finishes, do not applaud. Group one will silently go back to their seats, and group two will silently position themselves and then begin. We'll do that until the last group finishes, and then we will applaud ourselves all at once. As each group does its reading, do not follow along on your copy. Instead keep your head up and look, as well as listen, to the group.

7) After each group has read, you may want to consider asking them all to do it again. The first time through, they may be nervous and unable to concentrate on the groups that come before. Likewise, once a group goes, those students my be relieved or exhilarated (or embarrassed) and may likewise have a hard time concentrating on what follows. The second time through will be easier for everyone. You can also specifically ask them to pay attention to the similarities and differences in each group's choices, as well as how the whole thing fits together.

8) When the groups are done, you should ask them to reflect in their journals. Here are some recommended reflections:

  • What was this experience like as a listener? What choices did the other groups make that stood out for you? What did they emphasize? What did you learn about the meaning and importance of this piece based on what you saw and heard? Was there anything you heard or saw that troubled you or made you uncomfortable?
  • What was this experience like as a reader? What choices did your group make and why? What did you emphasize and why? Was there anything you had to say or do that was hard for you or made you uncomfortable? What was the most important parts of your group's excerpt? How did planning your group's presentation affect your understanding of the text? What did it feel like reading aloud the words of this piece?
  • This kind of an activity is usually done with literature. Why did we do it with this court document? Why is this document important? How is language used in this document? This legalistic language is being used to describe real people and how the government treats them. What words or phrases stand out to you, with this in mind? What surprised you, angered you, intrigued you?

There are obviously many things to debrief with the students, including the process and the content, although the goal with this activity is to use the process to get at the content - specifically how is this distancing, legalistic language used in order to justify mistreatment of "the other" for the good of the rest of "us" - the health of society rests on the sufferings and sacrifices (willing or not) of the few. Also, it is important to demonstrate how the language and influence of the eugenics movement made it all the way to the nation's highest court and even affected the "liberal" jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Note on Holmes: his experiences as a soldier in the Civil War helped influence his belief that sometimes suffering and sacrifice of a few are necessary for the benefit of the whole - hence his acceptance of the eugenic arguments in Buck v. Bell).

The strength of this activity is that the students are forced to identify the phrases that are most revealing, important, insidious, revelatory, etc., as they plan for their reading and as they perform their reading. In the debrief, spend some time on which phrases they emphasized, as those are the phrases that are most important.


  1. Students can investigate further the fate of Carrie Buck and her daughter. The readings referenced above in Race and Membership and the film The Lynchburg Story both tell what happens to her and her child. This is just one example of how policy makers and the courts can conspire to affect human lives. Virginia sterilized over 8,000 teenagers and children through 1972. Carrie Buck was just one of them. What are the implications when the state pursues an agenda that includes the humiliation and abuse of its citizens?
  2. In recent years, many states have attempted to come to terms with their eugenic past, including their sterilization programs. Some of these states, including Virginia, have issued apologies. Virginia has also put up a historical marker in Lynchburg describing its sterilization efforts, including the fate of Carrie Buck. Why is it important that Virginia apologizes and publicly acknowledges this shameful moment in its history? What can a community/society learn from admitting past wrongs? What can happen to society when it hides its past wrongdoing?
  3. The sterilization laws are just one example of how states attempted to regulate procreation. It is also worth comparing and contrasting state anti-miscegenation laws to the sterilization laws. Reading two, "Eugenics, Race, and Marriage," in chapter 6 of Race and Membership addresses Virginia's eugenically influenced Racial Integrity Act of 1924. What are the similarities and differences in both intentions and the effects of sterilization laws versus anti-miscegenation laws? What did these laws hope to prevent? Why were these laws misguided and a violation of basic civil and human rights?
  4. The Nazi regime in Germany admired the eugenic ideas and policies of the USA and took them to a "logical" extreme, including the mandatory sterilization of hundreds of thousands of the mentally and physically handicapped and other "undesirables." Chapter 8, "The Nazi Connection," in Race and Membership makes explicit the connections between US and Nazi policies. Reading 5, "Under the Cover of Law," describes the Nazi sterilization program, and comparisons can be made between the German "Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring" and the Virginia sterilization law. The films The Lynchburg Story and In the Shadow of the Third Reich: Nazi Medicine both make explicit connections between US eugenically influenced policies and the Nazi's more extreme use of eugenics. To what degree should Americans and American institutions today acknowledge the connection to the Nazi's eugenic policies? How does this connection affect one's feelings about the USA and our involvement in WWII?

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