Last month marked the 90th anniversary of Buck v Bell. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the Supreme Court decision that ruled that Virginia’s sterilization law was constitutional and infamously stated regarding the litigant Carrie Buck, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
In his 2016 book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (Penguin), Adam Cohen goes over the facts of the case as seen through its main characters. The picture that Cohen paints is grim. In his telling, by the time Carrie Buck’s case reached the Supreme Court, she did not have a chance to prevail. The system from top to bottom was wired against her. She was merely a trial case to establish the legality of state-sanctioned sterilization for the ‘feeble-minded,” leading to the sterilization of between 60,000-70,000 people.
Cohen’s book has received mixed reviews on stylistic grounds, some saying it spends too much time on one part of the story and not enough time on other parts. That said, none of the reviews I read suggests that he gets the story wrong. Given the role that eugenics plays throughout Carrie’s story, this is especially chilling, because the book is more than history, it is a warning to those who want to remake humanity in their own image.
Cohen, a graduate of Harvard Law, states at the outset, “Another reason Buck v. Bell cannot be left in the past is that unlike so many of the Supreme Court’s worst rulings it has never been over-turned . . . In the twenty-first century, federal courts are still ruling that the government has the right to forcibly sterilize—and citing Buck v. Bell” (12). While we would like to think something like this will never happen again, history does not allow us that luxury.
For those of us interested in bioethics, Cohen puts the matter plainly: “… Buck v. Bell remains critically important because its deepest subject is a timeless one: power, and how those who have it use it against those who do not” (12). If we devalue a person simply because they do not meet our standard of what a person should be, we are all devalued. The story of Carrie Buck needs to be told and retold, and I am grateful to Cohen for retelling it.