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Buck v. Bell (1927)

The Facts

Carrie Buck, a teenager from Virginia, was committed to a state institution after becoming pregnant. The medical authorities sought to sterilize her on the grounds that she, together with her mother and her daughter, were “feebleminded.”  She challenged the sterilization law on the grounds that it furthered no legitimate state interest and therefore violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Decision

The Court upheld the law. Justice Holmes, writing for the Court, took the government’s factual assertions at face value and found that it was reasonable for the state, in the name of public welfare, to prevent the “manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” He thus reasoned that, so long as “every step… was taken in scrupulous compliance with the statute,” the Constitution had nothing to say about the sterilization law. He concluded: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Consequences

Subsequent research has demonstrated that Carrie Buck was neither promiscuous nor enfeebled—she was raped by a relative and she was of ordinary intelligence. In holding that the Constitution doesn’t prevent a state from tearing the fallopian tubes out of an ordinary citizen in order to create a “pure” gene pool, the Court tarnished its institutional integrity by giving credence to a repugnant theory of government utterly alien to the thought of the Framers. Of the approximately thirty-six thousand Americans who were forcibly sterilized by 1940, thirty thousand of them were victims of the Court’s abdication in Buck v. Bell.

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