Sterilization and the Supreme Court: Buck v. Bell
CW: Discussion of rape.

One week from the moment I am writing this, the 91st anniversary of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell will come and pass. Ninety-one is admittedly not the nicest or roundest number for a remembrance, but this is not exactly the nicest subject matter, so perhaps it is fitting. I feel that there is no wrong time to wipe the dust off a horrific artifact from our past, in hopes that it will shock us into never repeating it.  

In 1924, the state government of Virginia legalized the compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled. The first test case this new law would encounter was that of Carrie Buck. Buck was the daughter of a mentally disabled woman who had repeatedly come into conflict with authorities for prostitution and immorality. Buck was adopted and raised by foster parents, but after being raped by their nephew and giving birth to an illegitimate child, she was labeled “feebleminded and promiscuous” and institutionalized at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. The superintendent of the colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, petitioned the Board of Directors for permission to sterilize Buck. Although Dr. Priddy died, the Board of Directors went ahead and ordered the sterilization, now under the supervision of Dr. John Hendren Bell. Buck’s guardian appealed to the Circuit Court of Amherst County, then the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, and finally to the United States Supreme Court.

The argument made by Buck’s court-appointed lawyer, Irving Whitehead, was that to deny Buck the right to reproduce was a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. For those unfamiliar, the due process clause is intended as a protection against arbitrary violations of life, liberty, and/or property by the government. Unfortunately, as often happens when one is forced to fight a government using its laws in its courts, the Supreme Court decided to simply ignore and/or reinterpret the law. On May 2nd, 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed by a vote of 8 to 1 that Chapter 46B of the Code of Virginia, “Sexual Sterilization of Inmates of State Institutions,” was in fact constitutional. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the ruling, stating, “it would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices” and that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” He also argued there was precedent, specifically that “the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

Almost 60 years after this ruling, two aspects of the case came to light that, if true, must surely further complicate the legacy of Buck v. Bell. The first is, as Dr. Paul A. Lombardo argues, that Buck was neither “feebleminded” nor “promiscuous” [not that either would ever justify her treatment]. In fact, the only reason that Buck was institutionalized, according to Lombardo, was the shame and embarrassment that Buck’s foster parents felt toward her rape and subsequent pregnancy. The second revelation is that Irving Whitehead had an enormous conflict of interest. Whitehead had not only been on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Colony, but had also served as legal counsel for the board. He was also long-time friends with both Dr. Albert Priddy and Aubrey E. Strode, Whitehead’s opposing lawyer when the case was heard in the Circuit Court of Amherst County and the man who had actually drafted Virginia’s sterilization law. To say the odds were stacked against Buck would be an absurd understatement. The possibility of a false diagnosis and Whitehead’s collusion against Carrie Buck’s interests make Buck v. Bell out as not only an atrocity, but a downright conspiracy by the state and its institutions against a poor, innocent woman.

The effects of the Buck v. Bell decision were widespread, with dozens of states either adding sterilization statutes or updating pre-existing ones. Furthermore, the man whose model for sterilization, or at least a very close copy, was implemented in Virginia, Harry Laughlin, was publicly lauded by the Third Reich. He was even awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Heidelberg for his work in “racial hygiene.” But of course, this portion of American history has been largely swept under the rug, thanks in no small part to the whitewashed curriculum of state schools. It is quite a large part at that, as the history of state-enforced sterilization is intertwined with the history of the United States. As Professor Thomas C. Leonard argues, the late 19th and early 20th century Progressive Movement advocated eugenics as a central element of their policies alongside pension programs, wage controls, and immigration restrictions. The U.S. General Accounting Office has admitted that between 1973 and 1976, 4 of the 12 Indian Health Service regions collectively sterilized more than 3,400 Native American women without their consent. Even as recent as 2010 there have been allegations of female inmates at two California institutions being pressured into sterilization. In light of all of this, I ask that this May 2nd, the anniversary of the atrocious miscarriage of both justice and human decency that was Buck v. Bell, we vow to never forget the victims of this kind of arbitrary authoritarianism and dedicate ourselves to push back against any and all victimization to come.

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