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INJUSTICE/CIVIL RIGHTS/SOCIAL JUSTICE: Buck v. Bell

Buck v, Bell

In Buck v. Bell, decided on May 2, 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 8 to 1, affirmed the constitutionality of Virginia's law allowing state-enforced sterilization. After being raised by foster parents and allegedly raped by their nephew, the appellant, Carrie Buck, was deemed feebleminded and promiscuous. In 1924, Buck was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, near Lynchburg , and there ordered sterilized.

On March 20, 1924 (the same day as the passage of SB 281, the “Eugenical Sterilization Act”) Virginia signed into law SB 219, the “Racial Integrity Act.” Under this piece of legislation to became “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person” (SB 219, Racial Integrity Act).

 

Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded

The director of Virginia's Lynchburg Hospital was looking through old office files in 1980 when he came upon some startling records: from the 1920s until 1972, his hospital had sterilized some 4000 patients. Most had no idea that they were being sterilized. Most had not given their consent for the surgical procedures that the hospital put them through.

The hospital, called at various times the Virginia State Epileptic Colony and Lynchburg State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, was the largest institution of its kind in the United States. It opened in 1910 and became a dumping ground for several sorts of people, including Virginia's poorest residents, teens from broken homes, and those whom state officials considered socially inadequate. Many of the people in these categories were labeled with a vague term-feebleminded.

Colony officials were intent on weeding out those whom they felt would contaminate the purity and soundness of the white 'race.' They assumed that "like produces like" and thus targeted those whose likenesses they did not wish to see perpetuated. Their reasoning was that, by sterilizing 'unfit' people, the state's burden of unfit individuals-people who would need institutionalization, often for life-would eventually diminish.

By 1924, the state of Virginia had a draft eugenic sterilization act, which called for sterilizations for two purposes: to promote an individual's health or to protect the welfare of society. The second provision-protecting society-was directed at giving the doctors at the Colony the legal backing they needed for sterilizing patients. Colony officials decided to test whether the sterilization act was constitutional and selected a young woman from the Colony named Carrie Buck as the test 'case.'
 

Carrie Buck was sent to the Colony

Carrie had been sent to Lynchburg when she was a teenager. Before that, she had lived with her foster parents-J.T. and Alice Dobbs. Mr. and Mrs. Dobbs claimed that Carrie had epilepsy and was feebleminded. But, when reporters and others interviewed Carrie in the 1980s, they found that she was a woman of probably average intelligence, a person who enjoyed working crossword puzzles and reading, someone who had just played the role of Mary in a Christmas pageant at the nursing home where she was living. Carrie was not feebleminded. She had been sent to the Colony because she was pregnant. The Dobbs had her committed to hide the fact that their nephew had raped Carrie.
 

Virginia and California

Virginia was one of the most zealous states concerning eugenic sterilizations. California was another. By 1935, some 20,000 forced sterilizations had been carried out in the United States, half in California. The procedures were fairly straightforward-for men, vasectomy (cutting and removal of a portion of the vas deferens) and for women, salpingectomy (cutting and tying off the Fallopian tubes). Most of the people who were involuntarily sterilized lived in hospitals, group homes, and prisons, and, for some, the 'price' they were made to pay to get out was sterilization. Sometimes, though, even after the person agreed to the procedure, freedom was not granted.
 

ACLU American Civil Liberties Union

Many Virginians were unaware that they had been sterilized until the Lynchburg story hit the press and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action suit on their behalf. Carrie's sister, Doris, for example, wanted desperately to have children and spent years trying and failing. Only late in life did Doris learn that she, like Carrie, had been sterilized. When the ACLU lawyer interviewed Doris, she said, "I'm not mad; just brokenhearted."

The ACLU's involvement lasted five years. Early on, they contacted some of the people they thought might have been sterilized. But, during some of these first encounters, they learned how devastating and humiliating the sterilizations had been to the victims, to their marriages, and to their lives overall. Sometimes the people did not actually know that they had been sterilized until the lawyers told them. Thereafter, the ACLU waited for people to contact them. Reporters found some of the victims and encouraged them to join in the suit. In the end, the victims received only small compensation from the state. They were given mental health counseling if they wanted it. But no formal apology ever came from the state, nor did financial awards or opportunities to have the surgeries reversed (where possible). Furthermore, Virginia's eugenic sterilization law was not found to be unconstitutional.

The courts debate

As the courts debated the case, several groups fought against Carrie's pending sterilization. The case eventually wound up in the United States Supreme Court, which decided in 1927 in an 8:1 vote to uphold the Virginia decision to sterilize Carrie. The majority opinion in Buck v. Bell

(Bell was chief physician at the Lynchburg hospital at the time that Carrie was sterilized) was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes and included the famous statement: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." According to these justices, it was okay under the law to sterilize the socially 'inadequate.'

The three generations Holmes referred to were Carrie, Carrie's mother (Emma), and Carrie's child (Vivian). Emma had several illegitimate children in addition to Carrie, and, according to one commentator, her "deviance was social and sexual; the charge of imbecility was a cover-up ?" Vivian was born in 1924 and was an infant at the time of the hearings. A social worker who examined the seven-month-old baby testified in court-"There is a look about it that is not quite normal, but just what it is, I can't tell." That was the evidence for Vivian's 'imbecility.' When, years later, investigators looked back at Vivian's elementary school report cards, they discovered that she was a good child and an average student-not an 'imbecile' at all.