Buck v. Bell

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Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), was the United States Supreme Court ruling that upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization of the unfit, including the mentally retarded, "for the protection and health of the state." It was largely seen as an endorsement of negative eugenics—the attempt to improve the human race by eliminating "defectives" from the gene pool.

The plaintiff, Carrie Buck, was a Charlottesville native.

Historical Marker

A marker on Preston Avenue in Charlottesville says the following:


BUCK v. BELL In 1924, Virginia, like a majority of states then, enacted eugenic sterilization laws. Virginia’s law allowed state institutions to operate on individuals to prevent the conception of what were believed to be “genetically inferior” children. Charlottesville native Carrie Buck (1906–1983), involuntarily committed to a state facility near Lynchburg, was chosen as the first person to be sterilized under the new law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, on 2 May 1927, affirmed the Virginia law. After Buck more than 8,000 other Virginians were sterilized before the most relevant parts of the Act were repealed in 1974. Later evidence eventually showed that Buck and many others had no “hereditary defects.” She is buried south of here.

The marker was dedicated on May 2, 2002. (Lombardo, Paul A., Three Generations, No Imbeciles, p. 262, Johns Hopkins 2008)

The case of Buck v. Bell upheld Virginia’s law implementing a policy supporting the use of a concept called eugenics. Eugenics aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population by encouraging the procreation of the genetically superior while discouraging, or even sterilizing, the genetically inferior. (Nourse, Victoria F., In Reckless Hands, p. 20, W. W. Norton New York 2008.)

Carrie Buck

Carrie Buck

Carrie Buck was a Charlottesville resident who was sent to the Virginia Colony, a state facility in Lynchburg for the handling of “undesirables,” which the state considered to be epileptics and the “feeble minded.” The “feeble minded” were persons of limited intelligence, the congenitally blind, and promiscuous women. (Lombardo, Paul A., Three Generations, No Imbeciles, p. 10-11, Johns Hopkins 2008)

Carrie Buck was born on July 2, 1906. She was committed to the Virginia Colony on June 4, 1924. Prior to being admitted, Carrie gave birth to a daughter. It was primarily because she was pregnant at a young age that led to Carrie’s commitment. She had no physical abnormalities, and suffered from no known mental diseases. (Id. at 103-105 )

The Case

Doctors at the Virginia Colony had been seeking greater legal tools to rid Virginia of undesirables. On March 24, 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act to provide for the sterilization of inmates at Virginia’s state institutions. The law would provide “scientific management” to Virginia’s social problems. The law allowed the superintendents of the various State institutions to decide to sterilize inmates after petitioning a state board and providing the inmate a hearing before the board. Following the hearing, the inmate could be sterilized if the board found the inmate was “insane, idiotic, imbecile, feeble-minded, or epileptic, and by the laws of heredity is the probably potential parent of socially inadequate offspring likewise afflicted.” (Id., 98-100, 288-292)

Doctors at the Virginia Colony determined that Carrie Buck was the perfect test case in large part because Carrie’s mother was also an inmate at the Virginia Colony. Following a hearing, Carrie was declared feebleminded and ordered sterilized. The doctors then hired counsel to represent Carrie in court. The trial took place in the Amherst County Courthouse in Lynchburg, and the decision was upheld, as it was upheld at the Virginia Court of Appeals. (Id., 112, 151)

The Opinion

The Supreme Court granted review and issued its opinion on May 2, 1927. (Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)) The opinion, authored by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, upheld the order that Carrie Buck be sterilized. Holmes noted the many procedural steps and safeguards for the targets of the sterilization 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. . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough." (274 U.S. at 207)

On October 19, 1927, Carrie Buck was sterilized, the first of 8,300 Virginians sterilized before the program was suspended in 1979. (Lombardo, Paul A., Three Generations, No Imbeciles, p. 185, Johns Hopkins 2008)

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