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The Supreme Court and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Critics of forced sterilization laws believed that they violated rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. In 1924, eugenicists and their supporters decided to find out if the laws were constitutional. To do so, they needed someone who could challenge the law in the courts. They chose Carrie Buck of Virginia. At the age  of 17 years old, she was pregnant and unmarried. Her mother, Emma, an  inmate at the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was rumored to have been a prostitute. Carrie was classified as “feebleminded” and after her child was born, she was committed to the Lynchburg Colony. Officials were convinced that they now knew everything worth knowing about her.1

A simple check of state records would have revealed that Emma Buck and her husband were legally married at the time Carrie was born, although they separated when she was very young. Unable to support Carrie after she and her  husband parted, Emma placed the four-year-old in foster care. The child was  sent to live with a Mr. and Mrs. J. T. Dobbs. She did chores for the couple and attended school through the sixth grade. She kept up with her classmates and  was promoted every year. According to school records, her sixth-grade teacher characterized Buck’s work and behavior as “very good.”

Like most poor children in rural Virginia in the first years of the twentieth century, Buck received a sixth-grade education. After leaving school, she continued to live with Dobbses and work in their home. She attended church and sang in the choir. In the early 1920s, a nephew of Mrs. Dobbs joined the household, possibly to help with farm work much as Buck helped with the housework. In the summer of 1923, when Buck was about 16, the nephew raped her while his aunt and uncle were away from home.

A pedigree chart that Harry Laughlin offered as evidence of Carrie Buck’s hereditary “feeblemindedness," with the goal of involuntary sterilization.

When Carrie Buck became pregnant, the Dobbses tried to commit her to the Lynchburg Colony by claiming that she had appeared “feebleminded” since the age of ten or eleven. Later they said she was “peculiar” since birth, even though she did not come to live with them until much later. State officials did not ques- tion these claims. After all, Carrie Buck fit their stereotype of a “feebleminded” girl. She was poor, pregnant, and uneducated.

On March 28, 1924, Carrie Buck gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Vivian. A few months later, Carrie was admitted to the Lynchburg Colony. Not long after her arrival, Virginia passed a law allowing involuntary sterilization of those labeled as “feebleminded.” Officials at the Lynchburg Colony decided to sterilize Carrie Buck under the new law with the approval of Albert Priddy, the superintendent of the colony. But first, he and his colleagues arranged for her to appeal the decision in the Virginia courts. Although the appeal was in her name, Carrie Buck had no voice in the process. Priddy and other eugenicists were in charge. They hired an attorney for her as well as one for themselves. The two lawyers were in constant contact with one another and with Priddy before and during trial proceedings even though such collaborations are unethical.

The case, later known as Buck v. Bell, was first heard in the Circuit Court for Amherst County on November 18, 1924. At the trial Aubrey Strode, the lawyer for Priddy and the Lynchburg Colony, offered “scientific evidence” that Carrie Buck ought to be sterilized. The evidence came from the Eugenics Record Office and was prepared by Harry Laughlin. It stated:

Carrie Buck: Mental defectiveness evidenced by failure of mental development, having chronological age of 18 years, with a mental age of 9 years, according to Stanford Revision of Binet-Simon  Test: and of social and economic inadequacy; has record during life of immorality, prostitution, and untruthfulness: has never been self-sustaining; has had one illegitimate child, now about 6 months old and supposed to be a mental defective. . . .

This girl comes from a shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of people and it is impossible to get intelligent and satisfactory data, though I have had Miss Wilhelm, of the Red Cross of Charlottesville, try to work out her [family] line. . . .

Further evidence of the hereditary nature of Carrie Buck’s feeblemindedness and moral delinquency consists in the fact that at a very early age of four years she was taken from the bad environment furnished by her mother and given a better environment by her adopted mother. . . . The family history record and the individual histories, if true, demonstrate the hereditary nature of the feeblemindedness and moral delinquency in Carrie Buck. She is therefore a potential parent of socially inadequate or defective offspring.2

Laughlin’s statement was based on information provided by the colony. He never met Buck. It was important to the colony’s case to show that Buck was likely to pass on defective traits to her children. After watching her seven-month-old daughter for a short time, a nurse decided that the baby was “not quite normal.” Based on this testimony, the judge decided that Carrie’s mother, Carrie herself, and her infant daughter were all “socially inadequate.”

Irving Whitehead, Buck’s lawyer, did little on her behalf. He called no witnesses to dispute Laughlin or other “experts” who favored sterilization. Not surprisingly, a judge upheld the decision to sterilize Carrie Buck. Whitehead promptly filed an appeal on her behalf in the Virginia Court of Appeals. It was just eight pages long, compared with the 44-page document the colony’s lawyers prepared. In November 1925, the appeals court also ruled against Buck.

In April of 1927, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. By then, Albert Priddy was dead. The new superintendent of the Lynchburg Colony was his former assistant, a Dr. Bell. So the case that began as Buck v. Priddy went to the Supreme Court as Buck v. Bell. The justices saw only the records from the original trial and the appeals court. Based solely on what they read in the court transcripts, they voted 8-1 to uphold the sterilization of Carrie Buck. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated:

The case comes here upon the contention that the statute authorizing the judgment is void under the Fourteenth Amendment as denying to the plaintiff in error [Carrie Buck] due process of law and the equal protection of the laws.

Carrie Buck is a feebleminded white woman who was committed to the State Colony above mentioned in due form. She is the daughter of a feebleminded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feebleminded child. She was eighteen years old at the time of the trial of her case in the Circuit Court in the latter part of 1924. . . . The commonwealth [of Virginia] is supporting in various institutions many defective persons who if now discharged would become a menace but if incapable of procreating might be discharged with safety and become self-supporting with benefit to themselves and to society; . . . experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, etc. . . .

There can be no doubt that so far as procedure is concerned the rights of the patient are most carefully considered, and as every step in this case was taken in scrupulous compliance with the statute and after months of observation, there is no doubt that in that respect the plaintiff in error has had due process at law. . . .

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, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in   order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

The ruling had important consequences. Carrie Buck was sterilized in October 1927. She was paroled from the colony shortly after the operation with the stipulation that she report to officials annually. Over the years, Buck worked at odd jobs in households and on farms. She married, was widowed, and later remarried. She died in a nursing home in 1983. People who knew her remarked on her kindness and recalled her enjoyment of reading. Her daughter Vivian died from an infection in 1932, at the age of eight. School records show that she was a good student who made the honor roll at least once.

In 1928, Virginia officials also sterilized Carrie Buck’s sister. She was told that the operation was to remove her appendix. Only in 1980 did she learn why she was never able to have a child. “I broke down and cried,” she said. “My hus- band and me wanted children desperately. We were crazy about them. I never knew what they’d done to me.”

The ruling encouraged other states to enact sterilization laws. By 1930, 24 states had passed similar measures and about 60,000 people were sterilized under these statutes. Virginia alone sterilized more than 7,500 people between the Supreme Court ruling in 1927 and 1972 when the law was finally replaced.

Most of the people who were sterilized came from poor or working-class backgrounds, much like Carrie Buck’s. Patients from well-to-do families were cared for at home or private facilities. They rarely underwent sterilization. African Americans and other people of color were also unlikely to be sterilized—mainly because they were not admitted to public mental hospitals or institutions.

  1. Citations

    • 1 This account is based upon an article by Paul A. Lombardo, “Three Generations, No Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell,” New York University Law Review, vol. 60 (April, 1985), pp. 30–61.
    • 2 The Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, No. 1700, Carrie Buck vs Dr. J.H. Bell, pp. 40–42.
    • 3 “Eugenics” by Carole R. McCann in The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History ed. by Wilma Mankiller, Gwendolyn Mink, et. al. Houghton Mifflin, 1998, p. 179.

Connection Questions

  1. How did Virginia’s sterilization law view Carrie Buck and the other women in her family? To what extent did the law place them outside the state’s “universe of obligation”?
  2. Review the Supreme Court’s decision and identify key elements in Holmes’s justification for upholding the Virginia law. Who, in his view, are the “best citizens”? What is the implication of his use of such phrases as “a menace” and “swamped with incompetence”? To what extent did Buck receive “due process at law”? The Supreme Court relied on Laughlin and other eugenicists to make its decision. What scientific studies might have led to a very different decision? What does Holmes mean when he says that sterilization is a sacrifice “often not felt to be such by those concerned”? What assumptions is he making?  What evidence provided in the reading might have altered his opinion? Historian Carole R. McCann writes of his decision:
    In effect, the Court gave the government the right to determine which women were competent to become mothers. Although Carrie Buck, the woman in the case, was poor and white, the Court’s decision implicitly endorsed elitism and racism. It sanctioned the eugenic logic behind sterilization laws that defined fitness by class and race as much as by intelligence or character.3
  3. What is elitism? Racism? In what sense does the decision endorse either or both? How does the decision define “fitness”?
  4. What arguments might a more able and impartial lawyer have made on Carrie Buck’s behalf?  How might such a lawyer have challenged the scientific testimony in support of her sterilization?
  5. The Supreme Court is mainly concerned with constitutional issues. What constitutional claim did Carrie Buck’s lawyer make?  The first section of the Fourteenth Amendment states:
    All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty,  or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
  6. How do you think the amendment applies to this case? Why does Holmes believe it does not apply?
  7. The Lynchburg Story is a powerful documentary film on the Carrie Buck case and its legacy.  The video adds an important element to this case by bringing it down from a legal and scientific plane into the real lives of the people involved.
  1. Citations

    • 3 “Eugenics” by Carole R. McCann in The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History ed. by Wilma Mankiller, Gwendolyn Mink, et. al. Houghton Mifflin, 1998, p. 179.

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