“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history, according to journalist Adam Cohen, was the 1927 decision upholding a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a person considered unfit to procreate – unfit because they were deemed to be mentally deficient.  That decision is part of a larger chapter of American history in which the eugenics movement was behind preventing so-called mentally deficient people from procreating through not allowing them to marry, sterilizing them and segregating them in special colonies.

The Nazis borrowed some ideas from American eugenicists.  The eugenics movement also influenced the 1924 Immigration Act, which was designed in part to keep out Italians and Eastern European Jews.  Adam Cohen’s book titled Imbeciles is about the eugenics movement in the early 20th century and the Supreme Court case legalizing sterilization.

The word eugenics was actually coined by Francis Galton, who was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, and it derived from Darwinian ideas.  The eugenicists looked at evolution and survival of the fittest as Darwin was describing it. They believed they could help nature along if they could just plan who reproduces and who doesn’t reproduce.

In Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s right to sterilize.  Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision upholding forced sterilization.  In this one case, Holmes wrote not only that Carrie Buck should be sterilized, that the Virginia law was constitutional, but he urged America to do more eugenic sterilization.  As outrageous as this may sound, this case has never been overturned, and is still being used.

The court had an opportunity to overturn it in a 1942 case challenging the Oklahoma sterilization law and they specifically chose not to.  They struck down the Oklahoma law but on very narrow grounds.  In 2001, a sterilization was upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals – one step below the Supreme Court – citing Buck v. Bell.1

According to Adam Cohen, even 3500 years ago, humanity understood that the highest goal of law should be to make sure that the strong do not harm the weak.  It is remarkable that Buck v. Bell could happen in a civilized society.

by Patrick Gaffney

by Patrick Gaffney

1 This blog has been taken from the transcript of “Fresh Air”.  March 24, 2017.  Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org.