“Three Generations of Imbeciles”
The British Eugenics Society came to life in 1907, and began hosting international symposia on improving the human “germ line.” The Society aimed to stamp out congenital, physical and psychological disability, reduce criminality, and promote “improved” human populations. The traits that counted as improvements went largely unsaid; presumably they were whatever traits the upper-class British possessed.
Everywhere eugenics societies operated, they succeeded in recruiting support from institutions. In England, the Society appealed to clergy and industrial leaders; in America, the most productive approach was through politics and racism. By 1921, the American Society had formed, and it quickly got restrictive anti-miscegenation laws passed in several states.
Still, some forms of resistance developed. Immediately following World War I, the Wilson Administration worked to segregate the Executive Branch of the government, and with great success. The Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, spent 1919 and 1920 vigorously persecuting labor leaders such as Eugene Debs. In response, several civil rights groups combined to form the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with the explicit aim of using the court system to force showdowns over civil rights.
One of their first cases they took on was Buck v. Bell, which the Supreme Court heard in 1927.
The details of the Buck v. Bell case were fairly straightforward. Carrie Buck, whose unmarried mother was committed to an insane asylum while Buck was a teenager, was remanded into the custody of a foster family in her native Virginia. When the underage Carrie Buck got pregnant, she couldn’t say whether the baby belonged to her foster father or foster brother, but she did report abuse to her social worker.
Instead of filing charges against the family that had taken Buck in (and then raped her), the state remanded the girl to a state hospital. While there, the warden gave Buck a choice: She could leave the hospital if she agreed to sterilization, or she could give up her baby and languish in the facility forever. Reaching out to the ACLU, Buck sued.
When the case got to the Supreme Court, the issue at stake was whether the state had an interest in regulating reproduction that exceeded the rights of “feebleminded” citizens to breed. After hearing the case, no less than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes issued the 8-1 decision that the “promiscuous” Carrie Buck’s rights were subordinate to Virginia’s right to limit breeding among the unfit, and that compulsory and coerced sterilization do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.
To quote directly from the majority opinion, which Holmes wrote himself:
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 with the opinion that, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”
To date, the Supreme Court has never definitively overturned this ruling, and it remains the controlling precedent, though Virginia’s eugenics law was repealed in 1974. Incidentally, no evidence shows that Carrie Buck’s mother was actually insane, nor did Buck ever demonstrate mental instability herself.
The Scope of the American Project
Carrie Buck’s misfortune was just a drop in the ocean. By the mid-1930s, 32 states had laws on the books regulating residents’ reproductive rights. Some took a “soft” line and outlawed race mixing, while others empowered civil servants to round up children and carry out invasive surgical procedures with varying levels of consent.
Some, like Virginia Brooks, were lied to about what was being done. Others were taken from their families and told they couldn’t go home unless they “consented” to either a tubal ligation, a hysterectomy, or a vasectomy. California alone carried out an estimated 20,000 forced sterilizations between 1909 and the 1960s.
In 1942, the same year the North Carolina government sterilized Brooks, the Supreme Court revisited the issue. In an Oklahoma case, the Court ruled against the sterilization of incarcerated criminals on Equal Protection grounds.
This did not reverse the 1927 Buck case, but expanded it. The Court said that Oklahoma could not wantonly sterilize violent criminals…unless it also sterilized white collar criminals.
Other states took notice and expanded their programs accordingly. In North Carolina, arguably the most aggressive eugenics promoter, social workers had only to bring individuals (often black and Hispanic resident, or white hillbillies) before a board and demonstrate that the individual had a sub-70 IQ. The boards almost never rejected a proposal to sterilize.