Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell
by Paul A. Lombardo
The United States has a long history of shameful behavior behind the legacy of patriotic heroism, bravery, innovation, and resilience. Our forefathers stole land from the natives who were here before us, spread disease, enslaved hundreds of thousands of people, and well into modern times have continued to marginalize and mistreat minorities. One of the chapters in U.S. History that is not taught in school is the eugenics movement which took hold in the early twentieth century.
Eugenics – or “better breeding” – was a social movement rooted in quasi-scientific theories about heredity. It was believed – though never actually proven by any stringent scientific methods – that individuals with undesirable traits, including, most notably, epilepsy, alcoholism, “pauperism,” (those living in poverty), criminal tendencies, and “feeblemindedness” were born with those traits by way of genetics, and that they would pass those traits onto their offspring. The only way to prevent the world being overrun by these “lesser breeds” was to prevent them from reproducing via forced sterilization.
“Anxiety about those who failed in the contest of life, relying on charity and inflating the taxes of everyone else, was widespread.”
(Things haven’t changed much, have they? Just listen to anyone in today’s Republican party and you’ll hear much the same.)
“Degeneracy theory gave a human face to the biblical curse condemning children to inherit the sins of their fathers.”
Forced sterilizations – the vast majority of which were performed on women – began in the late nineteenth century on people institutionalized, either in prisons or in mental hospitals. In order to give it legal clout in the face of public disapproval, a test case was chosen in 1923 to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was Buck v. Bell, and the plaintiff was Carrie Buck, a young unwed mother who was deemed “feebleminded,” as was her own mother who resided in a state institution, and her infant daughter.
“Feeblemindedness” was a very vague term, encompassing a vast array of “conditions,” including, but not limited to illiteracy, low IQ (determined by very unsophisticated and untested tests), wanderlust, immoral behavior (like becoming pregnant out of wedlock – nevermind that Carrie Buck became pregnant as a result of being raped by her foster parents’ nephew), and “shiftlessness.” Upon learning that Carrie was pregnant, her foster parents did what many did in those days to distance themselves from the shame of an unwed pregnancy in the household: they had her sent away and committed. Torn away from her baby only a couple of months after giving birth, Carrie was committed to the same institution where her natural mother resided – for reasons unknown – and both they and the infant girl were deemed “feebleminded.” Carrie’s surgical sterilization was planned to take place on the heels of her case which would go to the Supreme Court, which the doctors and lawyers orchestrating had every intention of winning – to the point of assigning an attorney to represent Carrie who did nothing to defend her rights and merely bolstered the State’s sham of a case.
In the famous Supreme Court decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote,
“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 is enough.”
Carrie Buck was in fact forcibly surgically sterilized after the case was decided, as was her thirteen-year old younger sister, and thousands upon thousands of more people over the next several decades, with California leading in the number of sterilizations performed. Carrie was eventually released from state custody and lived to be an old woman, dying in 1983, having been married twice and living most of her life in abject poverty. People who knew her later in life scoffed at the notion that she was “feebleminded.” She was, in fact, of average intelligence. The daughter she gave birth to illegitimately was adopted by Carrie’s foster parents and died of an illness at the age of eight or nine, after doing well enough in school, both academically and in her “deportment,” despite having been deemed “feebleminded” as an infant.
The U.S. eugenics movement fueled Nazi Germany’s quest for racial cleansing,
“But neither scientists nor the public connected U.S. laws to German atrocities. Fifty years after Buck, more than a dozen compulsory sterilization laws were still in force, and surgeries were documented in institutions as late as 1979. Far from being a legal dead letter, Buck has never been overturned.”
German scientists actually worked closely with American scientists in the development of their own eugenics movement, which of course was the foundation for the Holocaust. At the Nuremberg trials, Buck was referred to again and again in defense of the Nazi’s genocide.
It is hard to imagine in this day and age people being forcibly surgically sterilized for any of the reasons that were seen as completely justified and reasonable back in the day. And yet, despite astronomical leaps in scientific knowledge and supposedly progressive social views, minorities, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities are still marginalized and even targeted for elimination now. Knowing the history of eugenics in the U.S., it is impossible not to believe that modern-day prenatal screenings, designed specifically to target and weed out certain disabilities, is tied to eugenics.
“In the shadow of the Holocaust and in the light of Carrie Buck’s saga, eugenics is now almost universally considered a dirty word. But many of our motives today are no different from those of the Buck era: we continue to hope that science can be used to improve the human condition. We all want to eradicate disease; we all hope to have healthy children. We all also want lower taxes. Whether or not we use the word eugenics to describe those motives, we must recognize their power, both in historical context as well as today.”
“Today we can diagnose some forms of deafness, blindness, and cancer as well as numerous other diseases, where we know the genes that lead to disease and we can reliably predict its onset. The search for the cause of mental retardation has not abated since the time of Buck, and many genetic markers for cognitive impairments remain under study. How much does it matter if we use a technique – less troubling to some than coercive surgery – to “cleanse the germ plasm,” as the eugenicists would have said? Does our embrace of techniques such as preimplantation selection of “normal” fetuses or prenatal genetic diagnosis and selective abortion make our motives in “eradicating defects” less suspect? Our modern emphasis on autonomy as a principle important to both law and ethics does not free us from the hard questions posed by our newest technology.”
Three Generations, No Imbeciles is an unflinching look at a chapter in our history that still reverberates today. Utterly fascinating and ultimately unsettling, this should be required reading in every U.S. History classroom.