Buck v. Bell

When Enough is Enough
Carrie Buck had a feeble mind. At least that’s how Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described her in Buck v. Bell. In fact, Carrie was the daughter of a feeble-minded mother and the mother of a feeble-minded daughter. Unfortunately for Carrie, in 1924 Virginia passed a law that allowed the state to sterilize citizens with mental defects for their own health and for the welfare of society. The law was challenged, and eventually made its way to the Supreme Court where Justice Holmes wrote the majority opinion. He conlcuded the opinion:

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 let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

The Supreme Court held the law to be constitutional.

On its face, I think most of us would say that this is appalling. But doesn’t Justice Holmes have a point? The federal government can demand your life for the defense of the contry, so can it not also demand certain tubes from your body so as to not make an unnecessary burden on society?

6 thoughts on “Buck v. Bell”

  1. :shock:Get a grip, Steve. That’s eugenics you’re talking about. He has a point to the same degree that Peter Singer has a point about babies not being “people” because they are unable to plan and anticipate their future. 😡

  2. Alright, so what’s the distinction you’re making then? How can the government basically send me to my death (I’m assuming you have no problem with that) but the government can’t stop me from having babies? Both are bodily sacrifices made for the good of society. Why is one construed as a noble thing and one is construed as so obviously evil?

  3. The government isn’t sending you to your death, Steve. It can require you to risk your life, but it may not arbitrarily kill you. Not only that, but if you object to war for reasons of conscience, then you wouldn’t have to go. It isn’t an analogous situation. For someone subject to a forced sterilization, there is no recourse should she object.

    Further, your analogy ignores the basis for these decisions. Both are based on “the good of society”, but defending a society by force of arms against an external threat is vastly different than deciding that one should breed humans for the traits that Supreme Court Justices decide we should have.

    Let’s try another thought experiment. Let’s say that a gene is found that dictates whether or not a person is homosexual. Moreover, since homosexuals do not procreate, the Supreme Court determines that they are detrimental to our society and mandates that all homosexuals should be found before they are born and aborted for the good of society. Still see no difference? What if it is simply a predilection to crime? Just a good chance you’ll be a criminal, not a certainty?

    The common thread is that eugenics is playing God, whereas a draft is not. The draft doesn’t know if you will be killed or catapulted to fame and the presidency. Eugenics dictates that you or your offspring will be culled based on the predicted outcome of some scientist or bureaucrat.

  4. i’m for it. you are not only doing it for public welfare, but when you sterlize these unfortunate people, you are also doing them a favor. they are not competent enough to keep the kids, so save them the heart ache of having kids taken away from them. you lose some personal liberty, but if everyone benefits from this loss, then i’m all for it.

  5. Lest we forget that this country largely embraced eugenics prior to WWII. It was an extremely popular idea, similar to how global warming is today. Many celebreties and scientics applauded the idea.

    And yes, we sterilzed many.

    Of course, this is rarely brought to the forefront because of the relationship between eugenics and Nazi extermination.

  6. There is just a teeny little problem in Holmes’s ruling: modern scholarship shows that Carrie Buck was not an imbecile.
    Carrie’s mother, Emma Buck, was already committed to the State Colony for the Epileptic and the Feeble-minded; apparently, the evidence for her mental retardation was her disobedience to someone commanding her to pick up some object at her trial.
    Carrie Buck has been adopted while her mother was institutionalized and apparently no one realized her mental retardation was a serious problem. Why? Most likely because she was not retarded! Various circumstantial evidences point to her pregnancy as the cause of her institutionalization; it was a way to avoid a brewing scandal. According to Professor Lombardo, no one who met Carrie after she was released from the Colony thought she was feeble-minded. That is to be expected, as one of the pieces of evidence used at the initial trial was a teacher of Carrie’s who testified that she “passed flirtatious notes to boys.”
    There was never any real evidence to argue that Vivien Buck (Carrie’s daughter) was abnormal. The whole decision rested on the impression of a “trained nurse”, who testified that Vivien did not seem quite normal, that she was not playable. Ha!
    It has been brought up in the defendant in error’s argument that Carrie was an illegitimate child, but that was not true. Documents (including a marriage license) show that Emma was actually married at the time of Carrie’s birth.
    Nor was Carrie’s pregnancy her own fault (provided that you are not a “male chauvinist pig” in every sense of the word). She was raped by a nephew of her forster parents.
    Vivien’s grade report showed that she was a bright child (Mostly B’s, with 1 each of A and C; and remember, these were the pre-inflation days, when B’s and C’s were decent grades).

    And to view the sterilization of individuals as contributing to the public good is truly ignorant. The study of eugenics is riddled in retrospect. Oftentimes the studies fail to discriminate the genetically inherited characteristics and acquired characteristics due to social factors. They assume that if something passes from generation to generation, it is due to the genes while in real life, there are many alternative explanations. Just because the oil price rises as my eyesight gets worse doesn’t mean the worsening of my eyesight is causing the increase in oil price. There will always be arguments over exactly how much nature and nurture influences who we are.
    The authority to sterilize specific persons is a great power, and too easily can it be misused. Hitler, for example, took the eugenics ideas and model laws of the Americans and enforced it, and the result was death camps and racially-motivated sterilization. The main problem is that there is no way to determine who is deficient and who isn’t. IQ tests are not truly accurate (significant flacuation has been documented), and even if they were, where do we draw the line between imbecile and normal? After all, these are relative terms: to the high geni (singular: genius) the “average” person is an imbecile, so exactly who should we sterilize?
    As already shown by the example of Buck v. Bell, deciding who is an imbecile can be a very arbitrary decision influenced by other factors. Other flaws innate to eugenics nullifies its application as an useful or even valid branch of science/tech.

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