1927 May 2

“Three Generations of Idiots is Enough:” Supreme Court Upholds Involuntary Sterilization


The case of Buck v. Bell decided on this day is a now-notorious Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of a compulsory sterilization law in Virginia. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in explaining his decision, said “three generations of idiots is enough.” Carrie Buck was an 18-year-old confined in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. The superintendent said she had the mental age of a 9-year-old (although evidence now disputes that judgment). The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the sterilization order, 8–1, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the Court’s opinion.

In the 1920s, the idea of eugenics was broadly supported by the medical and scientific communities. Partly as a result of Nazi policies in Germany, however, thinking about developing a “pure” race changed radically, and the Buck decision is now generally reviled by civil libertarians and human rights activists. See the case of Skinner v. Oklahoma, decided on June 1, 1942, in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an Oklahoma law requiring the sterilization of certain criminal offenders.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes for the Court: “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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.”

Learn more, read the book about the case: http://buckvbell.com/

Read the acclaimed new book: Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (2016)

Learn more about the ugly history of forced sterilization: Harry Bruinius, Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity (2006)

Learn about forced sterilization at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: http://www.ushmm.org/learn/students/learning-materials-and-resources/mentally-and-physically-handicapped-victims-of-the-nazi-era/forced-sterilization

And more: Randall Hansen and Desmond S. King, Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-century North America (2013)

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