Meet right of the state to have her

Meet Carrie Buck, a 17-year-old rape victim who was committed to a state institution and sterilized against her will. Learn about Carrie’s fight to stop of the sterilization and discover one of the most infamous cases in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Before the Case

During the early 1900s, social Darwinism, the theory that the laws of natural selection also applied to humans, became an increasingly popular topic of discussion in the United States. For some Americans, the theory of social Darwinism led to eugenics, the idea that Americans with desirable characteristics, such as good health, intelligence, attractiveness and high moral quality, should reproduce, while Americans with undesirable qualities should be unable to reproduce.According to its proponents, encouraging desirable individuals to have many children and limiting or discouraging undesirable individuals from have children, would create a better, more desirable American society. As a result of the popularity of the idea of eugenics, about 30 states, including Virginia, passed legislation that made it legal to forcibly sterilize any individual, male or female, who was deemed mentally defective and committed to a state institution.

This image from the Massachussetts Department of Mental Diseases shows several examples of criminal brains and normal brains to illustrate that criminals had different looking brains than non-criminals.

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In this case, a young woman named Carrie Buck was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded with the diagnosis of feeblemindedness, a catch-all term for a multitude of mental and social problems as well as promiscuity. Her mother, Emma, had been previously committed for the same offenses. Like her mother, the primary evidence used to prove that Carrie was promiscuous was that she had given birth to a daughter, Vivian, without being married. At 7 months old, baby Vivian was also judged by the state of Virginia to be feeble-minded.With a newly passed law allowing for the sterilization of individuals with a family history of instability, the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony requested a hearing to have Carrie sterilized. The state argued that Emma, Carrie, and Vivian Buck were all feeble-minded and that both Emma and Carrie were promiscuous; however, Carrie argued that she was neither promiscuous nor feeble-minded.Instead, she claimed that her daughter was born as the result of a rape perpetrated by the nephew of her foster family.

Carrie also stated that she was institutionalized because her family did not want to face the social stigma of having a single mother in their home. With the help of an attorney, Carrie Buck challenged the right of the state to have her sterilized. Buck and her attorney argued that the Fourteenth Amendment should keep the state from intervening in her ability to procreate.

Buck vs. Bell (1927)

The court case created as a result of Carrie Buck’s proposed sterilization went first through the Virginia State Court system and then to the U.S.

Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. The Supreme Court justices voted 8 to 1 to allow the sterilization of Carrie Buck and, by extension, any other American in similar circumstances. In the majority opinion (the official, written opinion of the justices who voted in favor of sterilization), Justice Oliver W. Holmes wrote that ‘three generations of imbeciles are enough.’The Supreme Court agreed with the state of Virginia that Carrie Buck should be sterilized to keep her from giving birth to any more children who might be mentally defective. Only 1 judge, Justice Pierce Butler, dissented, or disagreed with this opinion; however, he did not produce a written opinion explaining his reasons. Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized, and there was nothing she could do to stop the process.

Historical Marker at Carrie Buck

Aftermath of the Case

After being sterilized, Carrie Buck was eventually released from the Virginia State Colony and became a domestic servant for a family living in Bland, Virginia. She eventually married, was widowed and then married again. She died in 1983. Buck consistently expressed regret that she was unable to have more children. Her daughter, Vivian, proved to be a good student, even making the honor roll at her school in 1931.

Unfortunately, young Vivian died the next year as a result of measles-related complications. With Supreme Court approval granted through the Buck case, many states passed additional laws allowing for sterilization of those committed to state institutions. Approximately 65,000 Americans were sterilized without their consent.

Later Supreme Court Justices have chosen to limit the ability of the state to sterilize individuals. In 1942, in Skinner v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled that the state could not sterilize criminals.

The controversial and cruel eugenics program practiced by Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and the increasing understanding of mental disease made sterilization laws less popular in the United States. By the 1970s, most states had ceased sterilization programs. In 2001, the state of Virginia publicly apologized for its role in the forced sterilization of patients like Carrie Buck.

This photo shows a 1970 protest against a North Carolina law that allowed sterilization.
Protest against Sterilization

Lesson Summary

Carrie Buck and thousands of other patients in state mental hospitals were forcibly sterilized as part of the widespread belief that those with mental issues should not be allowed to have children. In the landmark case of Buck v.

Bell, the Supreme Court confirmed that the state could regulate whether or not a mental patient could be sterilized. Later, as the cruel eugenics programs of Nazi Germany came to light, Americans began to see sterilization programs as overly controlling. Today, the government recognizes the rights of individuals to determine their own reproductive interests.


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