Carrie Buck, of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, was born to poverty in 1906 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her father soon abandoned the family, and her mother was institutionalized for “feeblemindedness” and promiscuity while Carrie was still young. Carrie was adopted by a foster family, and at eighteen she was raped and became pregnant.Share
On grounds of her allegedly deficient intellect, her incorrigibility, and her promiscuity, her foster family had her committed, like her mother, to the “Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded” near Lynchburg. She gave birth to a daughter, Vivian, who was also adopted by Carrie’s foster family.In that same year, 1924, the state legislature passed a law allowing the state to involuntarily sterilize the “unfit,” and the colony’s director, Dr. Albert Sydney Priddy, selected Carrie as the first patient to undergo the procedure. Opponents of the legislation filed a challenge, and the case made its way through the courts until it arrived at the Supreme Court in 1927.
Dr. Priddy had died in the meantime, leaving Dr. John Hendren Bell, his replacement as director, to continue the case. It was the heyday of the eugenics movement, and the ability to scientifically plan the transmission of genes from generation to generation, in order to improve the genetic makeup of society, was understood to be a boon to society. “Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” wrote Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the majority opinion. The court ruled in favor of Bell, and against Buck, 8-1.
The single dissenting vote came from Justice Pierce Butler, a committed Catholic. Before the case had been decided, Holmes had worried, “Butler knows this is good law; I wonder whether he will have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion.” (Read more.)