In the Buck vs. Bell decision of May 2, 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Virginia statute that provided for the eugenic sterilization for people considered genetically unfit. The Court's decision, delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., included the infamous phrase "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Upholding Virginia's sterilization statute provided the green light for similar laws in 30 states, under which an estimated 65,000 Americans were sterilized without their own consent or that of a family member.
Although Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization statute in 1907, this and other early laws were legally flawed and did not meet the challenge of state court tests. To remedy this situation, Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor designed a model eugenic law that was reviewed by legal experts. The Virginia statute of 1924 was closely based on this model.
The plaintiff of the case, Carrie Buck, and her mother Emma, had been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Carrie and Emma were both judged to be "feebleminded" and promiscuous, primarily because they had both had borne children out of wedlock. Carrie's child, Vivian, was judged to be "feebleminded" at seven months of age. Hence, three generations of "imbeciles" became the "perfect" family for Virginia officials to use as a test case in favor of the eugenic sterilization law enacted in 1924.
On the eve of the Virginia legal contest, the ERO dispatched its field worker, Dr. Arthur Estabrook, to provide expert testimony. After some cursory examination, Estabrook testified that the seven month old Vivian "showed backwardness." The Superintendent of the Virginia Colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, testified that members of the Buck family "belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South." Upon reviewing the case, the Supreme Court concurred "that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization"
Buck vs. Bell was flawed in many ways. "Feeblemindeness" is no longer used in medical terminology; it was clearly a catch-all term that had virtually no clinical meaning. It is impossible to judge whether or not Carrie was "feebleminded" by the standards of her time, but she was not patently promiscuous. According to Carrie, Vivian's conception was the result of Carrie's rape by the nephew of her foster parents. She, probably like many unwed mothers of that time, was institutionalized to prevent further shame to the family. Just as clearly, Vivian was no imbecile. Vivian's first grade report card from the Venable School in Charlottesville showed that this daughter of a supposed social degenerate got straight "As" in deportment (conduct) and even made the honor role in April, 1931. She died a year later of complications following a bout of the measles.
Although in 1942 the Supreme Court struck down a law allowing the involuntary sterilization of criminals, it never reversed the general concept of eugenic sterilization. In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly acknowledged that the sterilization law was based on faulty science and expressed its "profound regret over the Commonwealth's role in the eugenics movement in this country and over the damage done in the name of eugenics." On May 2, 2002 a marker was erected to honor Carrie Buck in her hometown of Charlottesville.