note: Mississippi appendectomy is “an evolving online archive of information about forced sterilizations of women of color.” An entry about Carrie Buck (described as a “feeble-minded white woman”) is included here because of the historical significance of her case and also because her story highlights the multifaceted ways that class and gender also define the boundaries of race. For more information about Carrie Buck and eugenical sterilization, there is an excellent online resource available here.
In 1927, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law. The landmark case – Buck v. Bell (1927) – originated in Charlotesville, Virginia when a teenager named Carrie Buck was selected as the first person to be sterilized under a new law allowing the state to surgically sterilize for deafness, inanity, alcoholism, epilepsy, feeblemindedness among other reasons.
In 1924, Carrie Buck was 18 years old. She was a ward of the state living in foster care because her mother was a resident of an asylum for the epileptic and feebleminded. Carrie Buck gave birth to a baby girl after being raped by the nephew of her foster parents. When her daughter, Vivian, was 7 months old the state of Virginia declared Ms. Buck “promiscuous” and the “probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring.” When she filed a lawsuit challenging the sterilization state experts – many of whom she had never met – testified to her “deficiency” as a mother and baby Vivian’s “backwardness.”
Writing for the majority in a verdict reached by an 8-1 affirmative decision, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an adherent of eugenics ruled her sterilization was constitutional on the grounds that Ms. Buck was a “deficient” mother, stating that “her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”
“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 are enough.”
— Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Buck v. Bell, 1927
More recent historical studies indicate that Carrie Buck’s sterilization relied on a false diagnosis reached according to the now discredited science of eugenics. Though Ms. Buck’s mother (Emma Buck) was a resident of an asylum for the epileptic and feebleminded, records show that she was committed to the institution because she was considered sexually promiscuous – she was not ‘an imbecile’. Furthermore, Ms. Buck’s daughter (Vivian Buck) who was diagnosed as “not quite normal” at the age of six months in support of the legal effort to sterilize Carrie Buck, went on to show no signs of mental deficiency. Vivian Buck died at age 7 due to an intestinal illness – the year after she made the honor roll at her elementary school.
- Buckley, Stephen. 2001. “Human weeds.” St. Petersburg Times. November 11, 2001.
<http://www.sptimes.com/News/111101/Worldandnation/Human_weeds.shtml> accessed November 19, 2007.
- Claude Moore Health Sciences Library Historical Collections Department. 2004. “Eugenics: Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Virginia, Eugenics, and Buck v. Bell.” An Online Archive of the
Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia. Last modified: March 2, 2004. <http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/library/historical/eugenics/index.cfm> Accessed: November 20, 2007.
- Lombardo, P.A. 1985.”Three Generations, No Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell.” New York University Law Review 60: 30-62.