Buck v. Bell is a landmark Supreme Court case in the United States that was decided in 1927. The case involved the constitutionality of a Virginia law that allowed for the forced sterilization of individuals deemed “unfit” or “feebleminded.” The ruling in Buck v. Bell established a precedent that upheld the practice of eugenics and involuntary sterilization.
The plaintiff in the case was Carrie Buck, a young woman who was classified as “feebleminded” and was already the mother of a child considered “feebleminded” as well. Under the Virginia law, she was slated to be involuntarily sterilized to prevent the supposed propagation of hereditary mental illness. Buck’s lawyer argued that the law violated her right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Virginia law and ruled in favor of the state. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing the majority opinion, argued that the compulsory sterilization of individuals with mental disabilities was constitutional. He famously stated, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” justifying the state’s interest in preventing the transmission of undesirable traits through procreation.
The Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell legitimized eugenic policies and gave states the legal framework to implement forced sterilization programs. As a result, many states enacted similar laws, and thousands of individuals, mostly women, were sterilized against their will. These programs primarily targeted individuals with mental disabilities, but they also extended to other marginalized groups such as people of color, poor individuals, and those deemed socially undesirable.
The Buck v. Bell ruling remained in effect for several decades, even as attitudes towards eugenics shifted. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the forced sterilization laws began to be challenged and subsequently repealed or declared unconstitutional by state courts. However, the precedent set by Buck v. Bell has not been explicitly overturned by the Supreme Court, although its principles have been widely discredited and criticized.
The case has become a symbol of the dark history of eugenics and the violation of human rights. It stands as a reminder of the importance of protecting individual rights and challenging discriminatory practices based on pseudoscientific notions of genetic superiority or inferiority.