Buck v. Bell 1927

Author:Daniel Brannen, Richard Hanes, Elizabeth Shaw

Page 672

Appellant: Carrie Buck

Appellee: Dr. J. H. Bell

Appellant's Claim: That Virginia's eugenic sterilization law violated Carrie Buck's right to equal protection of the laws and due process provided by the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Irving Whitehead

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: Aubrey E. Strode

Justices for the Court: Louis D. Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Clark McReynolds, Edward T. Sanford, Harlan F. Stone, George Sutherland, William H. Taft, Willis Van Devanter

Justices Dissenting: Pierce Butler

Date of Decision: May 2, 1927

Decision: Upheld as constitutional Virginia's compulsory sterilization of young women considered "unfit [to] continue their kind."

Significance: Virginia's law served as a model for similar laws in thirty states, under which 50,000 U.S. citizens were sterilized without their consent. During the Nuremberg war trials following World War II (1939–45) , German lawyers cited the decision as a precedent for the sterilization of two million people in its "Rassenhygiene" (race hygiene) program. U.S. sterilization programs continued into the 1970s.

Page 673

Sterilization of "Mental Defectives"

In a 1927 letter written shortly after the Buck v. Bell decision, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "One decision . . . gave me pleasure, establishing the constitutionality of a law permitting the sterilization [to make incapable of producing children] of imbeciles." "Imbeciles," "feebleminded," and "mental defectives" were harsh terms frequently used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when referring to persons with mental retardation (MR). A fear of allowing persons with MR to have children grew from the eugenics movement in the late nineteenth century. Based on newly developing scientific theories concerning heredity, the movement sought to control mating and reproduction to improve both physical and mental qualities of the general human population. By the 1910s a scientific foundation for eugenics had accumulated data based on studies of generations of "mental defectives." Experts called for sterilization of the "feebleminded" as the best way to stop future generations of "mental defectives."

Consequently, personal decisions of the mentally retarded about becoming parents and raising children became increasingly subjected to government regulation. State laws were passed directing others to make these choices for them. Several state asylums (institutions housing persons with MR and other mental problems) began sterilizing their patients. By 1917 twelve states passed sterilization laws.

Dr Albert Priddy

Central to the drive for population improvement through the eugenics movement and sterilization was Dr. Albert Priddy, superintendent of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded at Lynchburg, Virginia. During the 1910s, with encouragement of the colony's board of directors, Priddy sterilized some seventy-five to one hundred young...

To continue reading