“Buck v. Bell” in context

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A new journal article by Pepperdine University’s Edward Larson, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner in history, explores the historical background of the Supreme Court’s notorious 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, arguing that the ruling made sense amid the popular views held at the time of people with disabilities.

Lady Justice statute outside of U.S. Supreme Court

Buck v. Bell Reviewed

The Buck v. Bell decision upheld a Virginia statute allowing the forced sterilization of people with certain disabilities. At the time, popular scientific thought was that disabilities passed from one generation to another, creating “generations of imbeciles,” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously described the family of Carrie Buck, the plaintiff in the case. Therefore, society could be improved by preventing people with disabilities from having children.

While an absurd belief from a modern perspective, as Larson points out repeatedly, forced sterilization of people with severe disabilities had support of people both liberal and conservative, progressive activists, Pulitzer prize winning geneticists and even the most well-known disability rights activist of the day, Helen Keller.

Buck was also represented by poor lawyers who provided no reason for the judges to believe she was not “mentally retarded,” Larson states. This is not surprising, considering her lawyers were paid by the institution where she was held and were long-time advocates of the eugenics movement.

Therefore, a decision striking down Virginia’s statute “would have constituted a blatant act of judicial activism bordering on hubris,” Larson argues.

Most states abandoned involuntary sterilization amid revelations about the Nazi’s widespread eugenics programs and a deeper understanding of the complexities of genetics. However, forced sterilization of people with disabilities remained prevalent in many states until the 1960s. Decades later, it became known that Buck, in fact, did not even have a mental disability and was thrown into the institution after being deemed “promiscuous” and “feebleminded.”

 

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