Sweet Land of Liberty
November 30, 2020 11:23 AM   Subscribe

94 years ago in May, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its 1927 pro-eugenics 8–1 decision Buck v. Bell, which found that, if it is in the compelling interests of the state, governments may involuntary sterilize “unfit” people who “sap the strength of the State”—that this is in keeping with the United States Constitution and other United States law. The SCOTUS ruling would be cited at the Nuremburg Tribunals by a fugitive Nazi party official charged with war crimes in his defense. It has never been overturned.

From Wikipedia:
On May 2, 1927, in an 8–1 decision, the Court accepted that Buck, her mother and her daughter were "feeble-minded" and "promiscuous", and that it was in the state's interest to have her sterilized. The ruling legitimized Virginia's sterilization procedures until they were repealed in 1974.

The ruling was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In support of his argument that the interest of "public welfare" outweighed the interest of individuals in their bodily integrity, he argued:
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, 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
Holmes concluded his argument by declaring that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough".
Later academic research found that the woman sterilized as a result of this ruling was not “feeble-minded” or “promiscuous” but had been raped as a teenager by a relative of her foster family and then placed in a mental institution by that foster family as a means of quelling social stigma and covering up their neglect.

The recently-formed ACLU was pro-eugenics and so Buck, 18 years old and freshly pipelined from foster care into an institution full of people with severe mental health problems and severe treated-for-supposed-mental-health-problems-by-early-twentieth-century-medicine problems, had no real advocate. The superintendent of the mental institution which imprisoned Buck, who initiated the litigation, actually passed away during the legal process, which was taken up by Bell, his successor.

After the SCOTUS opinion was handed down Buck's sister, confined at the same institution, was also sterilized during what she was told was an appendectomy. She later married and with her husband spent years trying to conceive before being told after a medical examination that she had actually been sterilized.

The sole opposing justice did not write a dissenting opinion. The majority opinion was cited during the Nuremberg Tribunals of Nazi war criminals by the defense. Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.

The first above-the-fold non-Wikipedia link is to a 2016 Democracy Now! segment and transcript:
“Buck v. Bell: Inside the SCOTUS Case That Led to Forced Sterilization of 70,000 & Inspired the Nazis”
That's an interview with journalist and author Adam Cohen about his book released that year Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck—its Worldcat entry has a link to an online OverDrive copy if your library provides access.

Cohen says that American eugenicists were generally only interested in “improving” the heredity of what they saw as the white race. But sterilization was definitely performed on others, there is the history of breeding of enslaved people in the United States, and, in the course of the otherwise noble pursuit of reproductive freedom, there was the testing of experimental pharmaceutical birth control methods on Puerto Ricans.

For posterity's sake here's the Internet Archive web page backup for the Democracy Now! interview, which starts at about 27:40 in the full show .mp4 (Re-live the exciting nomination of Merrick Garland! Be on the edge of your seat with suspense over whether the Republican Senate will approve his appointment, or even talk to him!), alt link, .torrent, magnet.

More of Adam Cohen concerning this book: C-SPAN presentation, Brennan Center for Justice interview

The last link above the fold is to a blog post from last month by UC Davis law professor Jasmine E. Harris, “Why Buck v. Bell Still Matters”, which states to the contrary that the ~70k figure for the number of people subjected to government sterilization by the U.S. since affirmed legalization in Buck v. Bell represents predominantly women of color and that,
The work of critical race reproductive justice scholars such as Dorothy Roberts’s Killing the Black Body and Michele Goodwin’s Policing the Womb, among others, have documented how the bodies of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and disabled women become politicized.
Another, 2008 book on the case by historian Paul A. LombardoThree Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell—is available for borrowing online at the Internet Archive after registering for a free account; only a handful of people (maybe just one person? idk) can borrow a particular book at once so please remember to press the “Return Book” button before you close your browser.

Of the latter book Wikipedia says,
[Lombardo] asserted that Buck's lawyer, Irving Whitehead, poorly argued her case, failed to call important witnesses, and was remarked by commentators to often not know what side he was on. It is now thought that this was not because of incompetence, but deliberate.
A third, also borrowable at IA, 1989 book is The Sterilization of Carrie Buck: Was She Feebleminded or Society's Pawn? by J. David Smith and K. Ray Nelson.

Text of the Buck v. Bell opinion, 274 U.S. 200(1927) is available from:, Wikisource, CourtListener, Findlaw, Google Scholar, Justia, Library of Congress (PDF), and Professor Thomas D. Russell.

The U.S. eugenics movement previously on MeFi: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, paid sterilization programs running into the 21st century: 6, 7, 8, posts related to the Ashley Treatment applied to severely developmentally disabled people with uteruses which involves a hysterectomy and other measures: 1, 2, 3
posted by XMLicious (17 comments total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
This is a fantastic post. Thank you for this.
posted by saladin at 12:05 PM on November 30, 2020 [7 favorites]

So this is the legal rationalization for the sterilization of immigrant women in custody, right now? I am not surprised at the lengths that morally incompetent people with a strong dose of psychosexual, social perversity, want to "work on," vulnerable women in custody, and doubtlessly men as well. They are well situated in the American horror money machine.
posted by Oyéah at 12:51 PM on November 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

This fucking country, I swear to god. I can’t even anymore.
posted by ZakDaddy at 1:45 PM on November 30, 2020 [6 favorites]

Every single person you hear say "America is a republic, not a democracy" is perfectly OK with this, although many of them seem not to realize it. A "republic" without human rights baked into its basic law is precisely what leads a country to this kind of abomination.

Thanks for this post. More people need to know about this, and about Fred Korematsu while we're at it, another case that's never been explicitly overturned.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:56 PM on November 30, 2020 [10 favorites]

I can already smell the Qanon which already tries to tie into ADOS thinking and "abortion is a plot to genocide black people" plus this, plus Tuskegee, plus "the logic that allows enforced vaccinations..."

To further fuel their delusional beliefs that this is all part of the same evil satanic plot of some sort. (and it all ties into rhetoric sounding like it opposes fascism, and nazi lines of thinking, and yet...

It's weird how these knots are so tangled .

Fuck eugenics. I think it's good for progressives to admit and understand their role in this, while also pointing out that this is no longer a progressive belief in any way shape or form.
posted by symbioid at 1:58 PM on November 30, 2020 [7 favorites]

Passage of Laws

"In 1897, Michigan became the first state in the nation to propose eugenics legislation. This bill called for the castration of certain types of criminals and "degenerates"; however, this legislation did not pass...When the U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell set precedence for more lenient sterilization justifications, Michigan’s Supreme Court in turn reinterpreted its sterilization policy as an extension of its compulsory vaccination law, which precipitated an massive increase in sterilizations."
posted by clavdivs at 3:57 PM on November 30, 2020

Canada had a comparable history of eugenics laws and practices. Alberta and British Columbia passed laws in the 20s and 30s that weren't repealed until the 70s, and sterilizations continued right up until the end (Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario failed to pass their own eugenics laws due to opposition by the Catholic Church).

There were also eugenics practices that continued afterwards against Indigenous women, including pressuring them for consent for a tubal ligation while they were in labour.
posted by fatbird at 4:04 PM on November 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

Meanwhile, the so-called 'Dr Uterus' is accused of performing many unwanted hysterectomies on ICE detainees.
posted by eye of newt at 6:53 PM on November 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Fantastic post!

I want to burn the fucking world down but will have to settle for punching the shit out of a pillow to work off some of my seething rage!
posted by supercrayon at 9:46 PM on November 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Worldcat link in the post is to a book that can be borrowed from the Internet Archive, but it may not be the book XMLicious wanted to link to.
posted by brewsterkahle at 11:27 PM on November 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oops, thanks for pointing that out, brewsterkahle. Here's a Worldcat entry for Imbeciles with an OverDrive link, and several of the other “eBook” entries for the same book have “Find a copy online” links as well which I haven't investigated, though I'd guess they're probably for buying instead of borrowing.
posted by XMLicious at 3:31 AM on December 1, 2020

Another Buck heard from ? I've just finished Carl Zimmer's She has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity which is excellent. One of the early chapters is about Pearl Sydenstricker who grew up in China with her missionaring parents. She grew up and married an agronomist Lossing Buck and their daughter Carol was born in 1921 with blue eyes and straw-white hair and increasingly troubling distressing behaviour [we can treat PKU with diet now, but not then]. The marriage didn't survive that jolt and Pearl was left holding the baby. She needed to earn money to support her micro-family and turned to writing novels, the second of which The Good Earth became flavor of the month, Book of The Month and won her a Pulitzer Prize (1932) and a Nobel Prize (1938).

Having grown up foreign, and fluent in Chinese, Pearl had zero tolerance with labelling people, especially children based on their skin pigment. She co-f[o]unded Welcome House an international interracial adoption agency which went on to place 5000 orphans in homes where their future was brighter than a Third World orphanage. If Carol had been born without PKU it is unlikely that her mother would have written her best seller and gotten it published to such acclaim. And without the acclaim, there would have been no money or drive for Welcome House.

Carol Buck was cared for in the Vineland Training School, NJ. Founded by Henry Goddard who had written The Book The Kallikak Family [1912] which was a best-seller with "data" showing intelligence was all in the genes and later used to support the use of IQ tests on immigrants through Ellis Island. Kallikak was submitted in evidence in Buck vs Bell. The "data" was much later shown to be "sketchy".
posted by BobTheScientist at 4:30 AM on December 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have a book in a box in the closet. It is a big black volume with the word “Eugenics” on the front in fancy, aspirational font. It is all about the glory that the future will bring thanks to this new ‘science’.

I picked it up from a friend who found it in their parent’s stuff because it shocked me. I often think about throwing it out. I never think about reading it. Some people who found it in my things might assume I agreed with it. Others might understand that it’s a reminder that science can be used to justify horrible things.

It’s like owning a Nazi flag I guess. What’s better - getting rid of it to prevent someone else from using it as symbology for the wrong reasons? Or keeping it to ensure we cannot forget the past?
posted by caution live frogs at 9:47 AM on December 1, 2020

Buck v Bell has been (pretty much universally) repudiated in the legal field, despite having never been "overturned." The Supreme Court will only explicitly overrule an earlier case if the same or similar-enough issue comes back before it, and in some cases that just doesn't happen.
posted by yclipse at 5:20 AM on December 2, 2020

yclipse: Do the predominant opinions of the “legal field” really matter so much, going forward? Genuine question, I'm a lay observer obviously.

Rather salient to me is that we have a new SCOTUS Justice Barrett who, despite having publicly made previous statements about “super-precedents” which she can actually confirm are valid SCOTUS rulings, and categorizing Brown v. Board of Education (overturning segregation) and Loving v. Virginia (interracial marriage) as valid at her confirmation hearing, she refused to state whether Griswold v. Connecticut (legalization of contraceptives) from the same era was valid and would only give a crazy-eyes chuckle while essentially saying, “Of course no one is going to usher in a Ceaușescu's Romania reproductive coercion hellscape in the U.S., why is everyone looking at me?”

(Note the line in the latter Wikipedia article, Before 1967, the Romanian abortion policy was one of the most liberal in Europe. Then, suddenly, and presumably independently of what the luminaries of the Romanian legal field thought, both abortion and contraception were declared illegal, causing first a massive surge in the birth rate and a consequent generation or two of neglected, orphaned, and disowned people.)

That's in the realm of personal bodily autonomy, but now, of course, the pipeline also has at least a few candidates in it willing to openly refuse to declare Brown valid, available for future nationalist and nationalist-curious presidents (or senates, if we don't get back to presidents appointing SCOTUS justices.)

So I'd welcome insight as to why my interpretation would be incorrect, but it seems quite relevant to me that with Buck v. Bell a previous precedent merely needs to be agreed with, rather than overturned. Harris obviously isn't talking about direct contemporary use of Buck v. Bell but still, as a law professor, appears to be describing it as a keystone legal support in development of many unjust practices ongoing today.
posted by XMLicious at 7:10 AM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wow, I had no idea of this ruling. Interesting stuff. Though I'll add, if the ruling doesn't affect anybody, how powerful is it. It's like saying "time travel is illegal", but to date, no one has done it...that we know of.
posted by cparkins at 6:16 AM on December 3, 2020

But... it does affect people, that we know of.

Did you miss the “Led to Forced Sterilization of 70,000” part? And what Jasmine Harris wrote is all about how this has been the foundation of horrifying, misanthropic, oppressive practices across society, persistently, for the last century.

And I'll add: eugenics is not some fairy-tale sci-fi or abstract issue, it's going to be a serious actual thing, via genetic engineering this time, in the 21st century. I am not optimistic that we're going to deal with it at all well, since we basically have complete by-the-numbers instruction manuals for how to deal with fascism in general or communicable diseases but seem unable to follow those things we actually already have the know-how to deal with.
posted by XMLicious at 4:21 PM on December 3, 2020

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