Kit Mead

On Buck v. Bell, the Real Tragedy of Eugenics and Adam Cohen's Imbeciles

The tragedy of eugenics is not that it happened to ostensibly non-disabled people. The tragedy of eugenics is that it happened at all. The tragedy of eugenics is that individuals–eugenicists such as Harry Laughlin and state institution superintendents like Drs. Albert Priddy and John Bell–used the prospect of disability to justify it. The tragedy of eugenics is that anyone, disabled or not, lost their right to choose if they wanted children. Proponents of the practice like Priddy used the prospect of disability to justify sterilizing anyone doctors and state institution superintendents decided to–disabled people, people of color, sex workers, women, low-income people, or a combination of those, for the most part.

In his new book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, journalist Adam Cohen asserts that Carrie Buck, the subject of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, was mentally “normal.” Cohen is not alone; other writers addressing this case, at least in part, including Harry Bruinius  (Better for All the World), Paul Lombardo (Three Generations, No Imbeciles), and J. David Smith and K. Ray Nelson (The Sterilization of Carrie Buck) largely agree that Buck and her family were actually quite “normal.” Cohen takes the argument beyond the particular case to the practice of sterilization at large. Cohen writes: "Many of the victims [of sterilization] were, like Carrie [Buck], perfectly normal both mentally and physically–and they desperately wanted to have children.”

In Imbeciles, Cohen argues that Carrie Buck’s sterilization was unethical because she did not have an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD), and that she should never have been in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. In one regard, he is correct: Carrie Buck should never have been in that institution. In another regard, he is incorrect. Though Cohen is not alone in implying that there was a correctly-targeted group, just as Carrie Buck should not have been institutionalized and sterilized, neither should anyone else have been.

* * *

Carrie Elizabeth Buck was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1906. The eugenics movement took hold as Carrie grew up. Her father Frank was dead, or had simply left–no one knew. Her mother was Mrs. Emmett Adeline Harlow Buck, called Emma. Her mother took to the streets and got put on charity lists to try and take care of her children. There may have been substance abuse issues with drugs. Emma sometimes went to having sex with different men to try and make ends meet, and had more children. A family called the Dobbses took Carrie from Emma when Carrie was three or four. Emma eventually was put in the Virginia Colony.

When Carrie was seventeen, the Dobbses’ nephew Clarence raped her; a pregnancy resulted. The Dobbses wanted to avoid scandal. They packed her off to the Virginia Colony as “feebleminded” after she gave birth to a girl, Vivian. Facts of the case were not observed–the Dobbses testified that Carrie was unruly and had epilepsy, neither of which were true; the Dobbses had “no proof she was mentally deficient, and her grades from school, for as long as she had been allowed to attend, showed no lack of intelligence.” There were also no provisions made for Carrie to have a lawyer that could explain her side of the story.

Cohen points out the various injustices in Carrie’s case through the course of Imbeciles, and at one point highlights one of his core arguments: that the Supreme Court and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., had “little to offer a poor, uneducated young woman from the rural South, who wanted the court to protect her from...the popular social movement that had caught her in its sights.” In this single sentence, Cohen offers up what he thinks is the injustice: that the movement “caught her in its sights,” unethically so because she was not actually “feebleminded.” Cohen presents this story as the tale of a young, non-disabled woman who fell into eugenicists’ crosshairs by unfortunate happenstance. Carrie was indeed unlucky–but Cohen and other writers should take care to not write that the reason it was unjust was because eugenicists targeted her instead of someone with an intellectual or developmental disability.

* * *

In 1927, Buck v. Bell went before the Supreme Court as the final appeal of previous rulings in Carrie’s case through circuit and state courts. The institution’s superintendent, Albert Priddy, had chosen Carrie Buck for a test case of Virginia’s new sterilization law in 1924, which was written by former lawyer and now Senator Aubrey Strode, a friend of Priddy’s. The sterilization law replaced an old one also written by Strode that had only given superintendents of hospitals authority to make decisions in the best health interests of any patient there. A family called the Mallorys had sued Priddy; Willie Mallory and her eldest daughters had been placed in the Colony after Willie got accused of running a sex-work house and arrested. Priddy sterilized Willie and her eldest daughter Jessie. Priddy came through after the court ruled he had acted with “medical discretion,” but the judge told Priddy to stop sterilizing patients until the law became clearer.

Strode, a native Virginian like Priddy, believed strongly in the purity of Southern women. He had already written or voted on several mental health bills during his tenure in the Virginia Senate, spurred by his parents acquiring dementia and dying in state institutions. Strode was known as a progressive reformer in many circles. Priddy asked Strode to write a piece of legislation that could beat any opposition from Virginia legislators and stand up to constitutional challenges. The man known as the progressive reformer complied, drawing on prominent sterilization-enthusiast Harry Laughlin’s “Model Eugenical Sterilization Law” from his book Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. Laughlin was the head of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory under another famous eugenicist, Charles Davenport. He would later provide a written deposition in a case he knew nothing about. He copied Priddy’s notes on Carrie almost word-for-word that stated she came from a “shiftless, ignorant and moving class of people.”

Before it arrived at the Supreme Court, Carrie's case had gone before the board of the institution. They voted to sterilize her. Her appointed guardian filed an orchestrated appeal that was not truly on her behalf. The case arrived at the Circuit Court in Amherst County; the array of witnesses included teachers of Carrie’s relatives, a social worker, and Arthur Estabrook, a field worker at the Eugenics Record Office. Carrie’s lawyer, appointed for her by the Colony, was Irving Whitehead–a former Colony board member. Judge Bennett Gordon ruled in favor of the Colony in a speedy fashion. Whitehead filed appeals in every court up to the Supreme Court, who decided to hear the case. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. felt particularly excited to see this case reach the Court. A supporter of eugenics and not the progressive justice people viewed him as, he would relish in convincing the other justices to agree.

Cohen portrays Strode in a curious way. Strode he characterizes as a reluctant, passive supporter of eugenic sterilization due to the fact that the bill “made many fewer Virginians subject to eugenic sterilization,” due to omissions of classes of people from the Model Law. In addition, Cohen pointed out that he had previously written a weak law, one that barely protected Priddy when the Mallorys sued. Cohen also argued this characterization with the reasoning that Strode did not vote on the sterilization bills. The characterization of Laughlin and Priddy as sterilization zealots is, however, accurate.  

In Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court delivered a devastating 8-1 decision, with only Justice Pierce Butler dissenting. It declared the non-consensual sterilization of Carrie Buck, a patient at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, and the three-year-old Virginia law that had allowed it, both to be constitutional. William Taft, the Chief Justice, asked Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to write this infamous statement in the opinion:

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.

* * *

Buck v. Bell was an injustice done to Carrie Buck, and to the tens of thousands of people, mostly in institutions, who came after her, and still an injustice if Carrie had had an intellectual or developmental disability. It was an injustice. It was an injustice to the women in the California prisons who underwent forced sterilization as recently as 2014, and to the women who went before a Tennessee district court prosecutor who forced plea deals involving sterilization.

Legal loopholes still exist with sterilization today due to the simple fact that Buck v. Bell has never been fully overturned. State eugenics laws were not overturned until the 1970s and 80s. People are still being sterilized today, in the United States and elsewhere.  There does not seem to be a legal initiative to overturn Buck v. Bell in its entirety; in 1995, the Supreme Court had a chance to do so: a woman with an intellectual disability challenged Pennsylvania’s involuntary sterilization law, and the Court declined to hear the case.

Buck v. Bell reached beyond the borders of the United States. The Nazi Party cited it as justification for some of their war crimes. They drew upon American eugenic ideals. Cohen, among other writers, has pointed out the facts relating American eugenics and Nazi eugenics and notes “the views that Davenport and other American eugenicists were expressing were ones that, in a couple of decades, would be associated with German racial theorists.” Carrie’s case and the Supreme Court ruling also influenced European countries, including Nazi Germany. Cohen writes that “Nazi Germany adopted its Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in the summer of 1933…the German eugenic sterilization operated on a scale that eclipsed its American model. The law authorized sterilization for many of the reasons in Laughlin’s model law…”

In the Nuremberg trials, United States officials, distancing themselves from American eugenics, acted as the primary agents in prosecuting Nazi officials, doctors, and others. Despite its association with Nazism, eugenics is not dead. Victims are still in living memory, and states have been slow to offer apologies and compensation.

From the women sterilized in California prisons and the women forced to take plea deals, to the parents with disabilities seen unfit to parent and have their children taken away–eugenics still has a strong influence. Robyn Powell, J.D., is a former attorney advisor to the National Council on Disability, and currently a disability rights attorney and a team leader at the Disabled Parenting Project. She notes in this piece for the Boston Bar Association that “Bell was cited by a federal appeals court as recently as 2001, in Vaughn v. Ruoff.” Vaughn v. Ruoff ruled that “involuntary sterilization is not always unconstitutional if it is a narrowly tailored means to achieve a compelling government interest.” She also notes that “several states retain a form of involuntary sterilization law on their books.  A few even retain the original statutory language.”

The eugenics movement’s power and prominence are not distant memory - and, perhaps, they should not be. We would do well to remember its devastating effects at its most powerful as courts routinely strip disabled parents of their rights, and forced sterilization lingers on into the 21st century.

Author Photograph

[Image description: The photo is of Kit Mead, a white non-binary person, smiling at the camera. Their hair is brown in a few areas but mostly dark reddish-pink. Kit is wearing tortoise shell glasses and a teal crocheted hat, with bright pink flower blossoms stuck in the hat.] 

Author Biography

Kit Mead is a writer and blogger on mental health and disability. They are Autistic as well as having ADHD and identify as disabled, and have multiple mental illnesses. A person whose gender is undefined and vague, as well as identifying as queer more generally, Kit's work has appeared in QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology. It has also appeared or is upcoming in Aurora (arts and literary magazine at Agnes Scott College), Luna Luna Magazine, and the Establishment. Kit blogs at Paginated Thoughts, where an earlier version of this essay first appeared.