Buck v. Bell in 1927: Summary & Decision

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet Carrie Buck, a 17-year-old rape victim who was committed to a state institution and sterilized against her will. Learn about Carrie's fight to stop of the sterilization and discover one of the most infamous cases in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Before the Case

During the early 1900s, social Darwinism, the theory that the laws of natural selection also applied to humans, became an increasingly popular topic of discussion in the United States. For some Americans, the theory of social Darwinism led to eugenics, the idea that Americans with desirable characteristics, such as good health, intelligence, attractiveness and high moral quality, should reproduce, while Americans with undesirable qualities should be unable to reproduce.

According to its proponents, encouraging desirable individuals to have many children and limiting or discouraging undesirable individuals from have children, would create a better, more desirable American society. As a result of the popularity of the idea of eugenics, about 30 states, including Virginia, passed legislation that made it legal to forcibly sterilize any individual, male or female, who was deemed mentally defective and committed to a state institution.

This image from the Massachussetts Department of Mental Diseases shows several examples of criminal brains and normal brains to illustrate that criminals had different looking brains than non-criminals.
Image showing the difference between a criminal brain and a ~

In this case, a young woman named Carrie Buck was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded with the diagnosis of feeblemindedness, a catch-all term for a multitude of mental and social problems as well as promiscuity. Her mother, Emma, had been previously committed for the same offenses. Like her mother, the primary evidence used to prove that Carrie was promiscuous was that she had given birth to a daughter, Vivian, without being married. At 7 months old, baby Vivian was also judged by the state of Virginia to be feeble-minded.

With a newly passed law allowing for the sterilization of individuals with a family history of instability, the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony requested a hearing to have Carrie sterilized. The state argued that Emma, Carrie, and Vivian Buck were all feeble-minded and that both Emma and Carrie were promiscuous; however, Carrie argued that she was neither promiscuous nor feeble-minded.

Instead, she claimed that her daughter was born as the result of a rape perpetrated by the nephew of her foster family. Carrie also stated that she was institutionalized because her family did not want to face the social stigma of having a single mother in their home. With the help of an attorney, Carrie Buck challenged the right of the state to have her sterilized. Buck and her attorney argued that the Fourteenth Amendment should keep the state from intervening in her ability to procreate.

Buck vs. Bell (1927)

The court case created as a result of Carrie Buck's proposed sterilization went first through the Virginia State Court system and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. The Supreme Court justices voted 8 to 1 to allow the sterilization of Carrie Buck and, by extension, any other American in similar circumstances. In the majority opinion (the official, written opinion of the justices who voted in favor of sterilization), Justice Oliver W. Holmes wrote that 'three generations of imbeciles are enough.'

The Supreme Court agreed with the state of Virginia that Carrie Buck should be sterilized to keep her from giving birth to any more children who might be mentally defective. Only 1 judge, Justice Pierce Butler, dissented, or disagreed with this opinion; however, he did not produce a written opinion explaining his reasons. Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized, and there was nothing she could do to stop the process.

Historical Marker at Carrie Buck

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