A judge’s decision in the 1920s to prevent the US from ‘being swamped with incompetence’
had far-reaching consequences, leading to tens of thousands of people being surgically
sterilised without their consent over the following decades, writes Simon Jarrett
Towards the end of the 19th century in the US, the costs of the huge institutionalisation programme for the so-called ‘feebleminded’ and ‘moron’ population began to be questioned. So too did its effectiveness.
The estimated number of ‘mentally retarded’ children in every state never seemed to stop growing and, despite a huge building programme, there were not enough places in institutions for all of them.
Furthermore, the early ideal that these institutions would become self- supporting through the produce of their farms and workshops proved to be a fiction. The cost of this mass incarceration to the American state began to be questioned.
The eugenics movement, which believed that populations needed to be controlled to prevent ‘inferior’ types, such as criminals and the ‘mentally retarded’ from ‘polluting the race’, began to advocate another solution – castration.
‘Morons’ would no longer have to be confined in expensive institutions if a cheap sterilisation operation could prevent them from producing children. They could then be allowed back into the community.
However, an early experiment with eugenic sterilisation, including castration, at the Kansas State Home for the Feebleminded in the 1890s caused a public outcry when 44 boys and 14 girls were mutilated.
There was no public desire to punish the feebleminded – most simply wanted them to disappear.
A boost for eugenics
When new surgical techniques for sexual sterilisation were developed at the end of the 19th century, this gave the eugenics movement a boost.
Vasectomy for men and salpingectomy (removal of fallopian tubes) for women seemed to offer relatively safe and painless methods of preventing the feebleminded and other ‘degenerates’ from having offspring.
The movement took off. In 1907, the state of Indiana enacted the first compulsory sterilisation statute, aimed at ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles’. Fifteen other states passed similar laws over the next decade.
However, despite their claims that his was a humanitarian and harmless intervention, the early sterilisation laws were consistently struck down by the courts on the grounds of individual rights, or freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. Sterilisation programmes ground to a halt.
This all changed in 1927, when the United States Supreme Court upheld the state of Virginia’s eugenic sterilisation statute in a landmark case known as Buck v Bell.
In 1924, Carrie Buck, aged 17, had been committed by a court in Charlottesville, at the request of her foster parents, to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. Three years earlier the same court had committed her mother, Emma Buck, to the same institution. Shortly after arriving, Carrie, who was pregnant and unmarried, gave birth to a daughter, Vivian. Officials sought to have Carrie sterilised.
Oliver Wendell Holmes: “It is better for all the world … if, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind”
The case worked its way through the lower courts and eventually reached the United States Supreme Court in April 1927. Here, Lord Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered his famous – or notorious – verdict:
“We have seen more than once that the public welfare will 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 to be 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 wanting 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.
“The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to start cutting the fallopian tubes … three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Holmes’s judgment in Buck v Bell, and his words ‘three generations of imbeciles are enough’ echoed down the ensuing decades. Programmes of involuntary sterilisation grew rapidly.
Between 1909 and 1928, an average of 448 people nationwide were surgically sterilised each year. By 1935, the annual figure had exceeded 3,000.
Ultimately, more than 20,000 people were sterilised in California alone. By the 1960s, when the practice was effectively (but not totally) ended, around 60,000 American citizens had been sterilised without their consent.
James W Trent Jr (1994) Inventing the Feeble mind: a History of Mental Retardation in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press
Edward J Larson (1995) Sex, Race and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
Philip R Reilly (1991) The Surgical Solution: a History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
For an account of the lives of Carrie Buck, her mother Emma and her daughter Vivian, read Carrie Buck’s Daughter by Stephen Jay Gould, first published in Natural History magazine in July 1984. It is available at: https://faculty.uca.edu/benw/biol4415/papers/carriebuck.pdf