Constitutional Law

Sterilized by the State

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In his startling new book Three Generations, No Imbeciles (Johns Hopkins University Press), Georgia State University law professor Paul A. Lombardo looks at the Supreme Court's notorious 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell, which upheld a Virginia law permitting the forced sterilization of the "feebleminded and socially inadequate."

At the center of the case was a young woman named Carrie Buck. She had been raped and impregnated by the nephew of her foster mother, then committed to a state institution by her foster parents, where she was sterilized. In his majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed Buck, her mother, and her daughter as "mental defectives" and declared, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Associate Editor Damon Root spoke with Paul A. Lombardo in September.

Q: What happened to the girl at the center of the case?

A: Carrie Buck was a girl who was about 17 years old. When the story begins she finds herself pregnant without a husband. She gives birth in the same year that the Virginia legislature passed a law that calls for sterilization of people who are so-called socially inadequate, which includes people who are in institutions like the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and the Feeble-Minded. Carrie Buck gets sent to that colony, which is an asylum for people with various kinds of disabilities. She gets sent there because she is declared to be a moral defective.

Q: Her lawyer, Irving Whitehead, has a relationship with this institution, right?

A: One of the great ironies is that the building in which Carrie Buck is sterilized has a plaque on the front of it—it's still there—which has her lawyer's name on it as a member of the board of directors of the Colony in its earliest years. He advises and votes in favor of sterilization.

He essentially throws the case. He doesn't present any evidence on her behalf, no witnesses at all. In the book, I think I present good evidence that the fix was in. By any measure, whether it's today or the measure of 100 years ago, he stands out in terms of his unethical behavior.

Q: Justice Holmes' ruling shows incredible deference to the state.

A: It's the most blunt kind of statism. If we can draft you into the Army, he suggests, then we ought to be able to sterilize you. We execute criminals; why can't we sterilize these people in the asylums? He says, well, we've endorsed the idea of vaccinating people in the time of smallpox epidemics. If we can vaccinate them, we ought to be able to sterilize them. He says it's not too much of a leap from doing a vaccination to cutting the fallopian tubes, as if these two things were somehow equivalent. So Holmes does really break new ground in terms of a radical definition of state power.

Q: Does the idea of eugenics still have any appeal?

A: Most people, if given the option, would vote to have less of a burden of social welfare costs and lower taxes. That's a popular idea for all of us. The argument that's made during the Buck case is that you get there by doing away with the people who generate those costs.

The real problem is that we all still feel that way today. Not that we want to be Nazis, and not that we want to re-enact eugenic laws. But we all still are looking for solutions to socialproblems and ways of managing the inevitable social burdens of crime, poverty, and disease. The hope that we can find those solutions is of course still with us—and should be, I think—but what we use as a means toward those is of course the question. I argue in this book that one of the things we shouldn't use is the power of government through coercive medicine. When governments start deciding who can have children, they almost always botch it.

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