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Buck v. Bell

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Significance: This case upheld the authority of states to require sterilization of any person deemed to be mentally defective.


In 1924 the Virginia legislature passed a statute that required the sexual sterilization of many “feebleminded” persons in state mental institutions. The law provided for procedural rights, including a hearing, appointment of a guardian, approval of an institution's board, and appeals to the courts. The superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded recommended sterilization for Carrie Buck, who was classified as feebleminded and a “moral delinquent.” Because Buck's mother and daughter were also alleged to be mentally deficient, she was considered an ideal test case for the law. After state courts decided in favor of the state's position, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decisions by an 8-1 vote. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the opinion for the majority, found that the law did not violate any principles of equal protection and that its procedural guarantees were more than adequate. Accepting the eugenics notions of the day, Holmes argued that if society could call on its “best citizens” to sacrifice their lives in war, it could “call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices.” In this context, he made the notorious statement that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Holmes had no way of knowing that Carrie Buck's child was the result of a rape and that she had actually done acceptable work in school until withdrawn by her guardians to do housework. Subsequent to Buck v. Bell, many states passed similar sterilization laws, and more than fifty thousand persons were sterilized nationwide. The practice of sterilization, however, was generally discontinued by the 1970's. Although Buck was never directly overturned, it was based on eugenics theories later considered invalid and appears inconsistent with several of the Court's decisions upholding reproductive freedom.