Aris Pastor is a senior at NASH. They are the event leader of interpretation for the North Allegheny Speech and Debate Team, and they have hopes for a future in both psychiatric research and law. They love reading, listening to Supreme Court podcasts, and thinking too hard about fictional characters. They will be going to Bowdoin College, majoring in government and legal studies, as well as psychology,...
Opinion: Buck v. Bell: A Retrospective
Right now especially, it is important for Americans to recognize our own history of eugenics and how it has shaped our world.
December 19, 2022
Throughout high school, I have heard a collection of Supreme Court cases over and over again. Some, like Roe v. Wade, are spoken of due to their relevance to modern politics or the controversial nature of their ruling, while others, like Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, appear due to their importance in American history. The latter cases are part of a certain group of Supreme Court decisions—the anti-canon.
Put simply, the anti-canon are the Supreme Court’s mistakes. They are the moments in American history when the nine people that deem the constitutionality of decisions, when the nine people who worked their way up through law school and bar exams and local and state and federal courts, when the nine people appointed by the President and secured a lifelong job—when those nine people make a mistake. They are our Insular Cases, our Korematsu, our “separate but equal.”
Despite the extent to which each of my history classes delved into America’s history, from its successes to its failures to the actions that don’t quite fit into either column, it was not until this year that I learned about Buck v. Bell, a disturbing ruling from nearly 100 years ago that gave states the right to sterilize their inmates.
This is not the fault of the classes I’ve taken—after all, American history is vast, and every piece of the country’s history simply cannot be examined in merely four years. It makes sense that one Supreme Court case would fall through the cracks.
As Mr. Mark Venezia, North Allegheny’s AP United States History teacher, said, “It becomes a question of what you remove, because you can’t add hours in the day. [Eugenics] is a very significant topic, but there are other things that are equally significant.”
Still, Buck v. Bell remains an important part of both our country’s anti-canon and history, one that cannot be ignored. This case is more than simply a Supreme Court blunder, but a representation of a history of American eugenics that few realize exist, as well as a warning.
In the past month alone, celebrity Kanye West has spoken about “forgiving Hitler” to his platform of millions of fans. In the past few years, former president and possible 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump has referenced “good genes” and “the racehorse theory.” Eugenics is more alive right now than many assume, and as its ideology continues to spread through both online and celebrity spheres, we must recognize it as the danger it is—and has been.
Learning about Buck is both a responsibility to our history and a deterrent for our future, and as Americans, we must examine this history, lest we repeat it.
The Mallory Model
When I first found the details of this case, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I fell deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole that is this lawsuit and the dangerous precedent it set, with the lack of due process and the ethical conflicts of interest that permeated this decision.
But a case like Buck doesn’t begin in the Supreme Court. Buck is built from legal precedent, from increasing trends of belief in eugenics through the 1920’s, and quite impactfully, from one Doctor Albert Priddy’s push towards sterilization in Virginia.
In order to understand Buck v. Bell, one must first understand Mallory v. Priddy.
Doctor Albert Priddy was the first superintendent of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, the institution in which both Carrie Buck and her biological mother were housed. Priddy was keenly aware of the costs of institutional care, but he embraced both the economic and broader treatment of what he called “mental defectiveness” or “feeblemindedness,” urging legislature to “give thought to the practicality of a law permitting the sterilization of inmates of our eleemosynary and penal institutions…”
As the Virginia Colony grew, so too did Priddy’s push for sterilization to be legalized. In his 1915 reports to the Governor, Priddy claimed that feeblemindedness was a “burden too heavy” for the rest of society to bear. He placed the most emphasis on women, especially those of childbearing age.
It should be noted that, at the time, feeblemindedness was considered an actual medical diagnosis—a state of having the mind of a child. However, it is obvious now that it was a useless, catch-all term with no real clinical meaning. Feeblemindedness could mean anything from poverty to a learning disability to—in Carrie Buck’s case—claimed promiscuity, with no specific, definitive terms.
While both Mallory v. Priddy’s basis and information from its deposition are not directly referenced in Buck, it does paint an image of the Colony’s first superintendent, revealing him as obsessive, manipulative, and unafraid to leverage his position in order to maintain power over his patients.
The 1916 Mallory suits surrounded George Mallory, who worked away from home to support his wife and eight children. While he was at work, plain-clothes police arrested his wife, Willie Mallory, and two of his daughters, Jessie and Nannie Mallory, for “conducting a disorderly house.” The court dictated that the three women be committed to the Colony and involuntarily sterilized. Priddy notably treated them as prostitutes, despite George Mallory’s, their boarders’, and Willie Mallory’s employer’s protests. The Mallory women were later released, and though their committing was deemed illegal by the court, Priddy was not held liable for their sterilization.
Priddy’s influence undoubtedly drove more support towards the eventual passing of the Virginia Sterilization Act in July 1924. However, the Mallory suits did more than simply lead up to state law.
The lawsuits established the power Priddy held, both in the push for legislature and over his patients, as well as his lack of regard for weaponizing claims of sexual misconduct. The case itself also showed just how widespread eugenics was at the time. From the court to the Colony to the police that arrested the Mallory women for no real reason, pre-World War II eugenics beliefs thrived in America. Most distinctly, the Mallory suits revealed which people would be more targeted by eugenics laws—young women, those in poverty, and those considered “promiscuous.”
It is no coincidence that Carrie Buck, the “test case” for the 1924 Virginia Sterilization Act, was all three.
Three Generations of “Imbeciles”
Though neither Carrie Buck nor her mother or daughter were actually disabled, to Priddy, and to the rest of the Virginia Colony, they presented an opportunity—the opportunity to use three generations of hurt, systemically abused women to establish forced sterilization as constitutional. Senator Aubrey Strode, one of Priddy’s close acquaintances that wanted the Virginia Sterilization Act to continue unimpeded, saw two major constitutional challenges to the law.
The first was the issue of due process, in that sterilization laws in several other states were found to be considered unlawful when they failed to include specific procedural safeguards. Despite the clear lack of due process, Strode claimed that he had “so carefully prepared the Virginia Act to meet this objection that he considered the question of its [un]constitutionality on this ground negligible.”
The second challenge to the Virginia Sterilization Act was that of equal protection. Because sterilization to only those in the Colony would be considered discriminatory against those housed there, Strode worried that the Act would be deemed unconstitutional.
The solution to their issue came in the form of eighteen-year-old Carrie Buck. Both she and her mother were poor, single women considered “feebleminded” and “promiscuous.” Her mother was institutionalized when she was just three years old, and Carrie Buck was sent to live with foster parents John and Alice Dobbs. At seventeen, her foster family’s nephew raped her, and after her foster parents petitioned to have her similarly institutionalized, Buck was sent to live in the Virginia Colony.
In 1924, Buck gave birth to Vivian Buck, and several Red Cross health workers described infant Vivian Buck as “not quite a normal baby.” Years later, before Vivian Buck’s death of an intestinal disorder in 1932, she was in her school’s honor roll.
Despite Strode’s assurance that due process would not be an issue in a court of law, it is clear that there was a significant lack of factual content in this case. Carrie Buck, her mother, and her daughter were incorrectly diagnosed with a pseudo-illness, allowing them to be the perfect “test case” for Strode, Priddy, and the rest of the Colony’s management to take advantage of.
To Strode and Priddy, Carrie Buck was simply the proof they needed to present to the court for the Virginia Sterilization Act to be deemed constitutional.
To prolific Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Carrie Buck was what he needed to write the words that would define this case: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
A Decision Already Made
The Buck v. Bell decision was just over 1100 words, and it referenced exactly one piece of legal precedent—that of Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the case that sustained compulsory vaccination. The case document for Buck specifically stated, “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”
The case document, though considered small for a decision with this much of an impact, is a fascinating read, both in law and in rhetoric.
Noah Feldman, a Bemis Professor of Law, spoke at Harvard University regarding this case. “The challenge was brought as a matter of law, not of fact,” Feldman stated.
The “facts” of the case—especially considering Carrie Buck, her mother, and her daughter’s diagnosis of feeblemindedness—were considered already confirmed by lower courts, and thus, the Supreme Court was not to hold it in question.
It is important to assert that even if Carrie Buck had been disabled, or even if the Buck family did have three generations of disability, the Buck decision still would have been wrong. In more modern arguments over bodily autonomy, such as the false claims that vaccines cause autism, much of the pushback fails to take into consideration the beliefs the argument itself implies. Vaccines, scientifically, do not cause autism, but acting as if a child having autism is that heinous of a situation implies a certain level of ableism. Similarly, focusing only on Carrie Buck’s lack of disability can often imply that due process was the only incorrect proceeding of this case.
It is also of note that the corruption of this case did not end with either Priddy or Strode. Irving Whitehead, Carrie Buck’s lawyer, was both assigned by the Virginia Colony and was a lifelong friend of Aubrey Strode. Whitehead, too, was an open sterilization advocate, and throughout the case, he failed to call any witnesses and his cross-examination was so weak that it was often unclear which side he was representing. The opposing lawyer’s allegations were often left unchallenged, even though that lawyer had not even met Buck. Whitehead further failed to make any point of contradictions in Buck’s foster parents’ testimony, nor did he reveal the circumstances for Buck’s institutionalization.
In a sentence, Carrie Buck never had a chance. Despite the fact that truth, that justice, should have been on Buck’s side, the decision was almost unanimous.
Buck v. Bell was an 8-1 decision. The only dissent was that of Justice Pierce Butler, who offered no dissenting opinion. He was, however, a devout Catholic, and many, including Holmes, thought Butler’s faith was the basis of his opposition.
Holmes stated, “Butler knows this is good law. I wonder if he will have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion.”
Carrie Buck herself was unaware the sterilization procedure would be performed on her, and it was only years later that she learned what had been done to her. When she was asked about her sterilization, Buck said, “They done me wrong. They done us all wrong.”
From 1927 to 1973, Virginia forcibly sterilized between 7200 and 8000 people. The Virginia Sterilization Law remained legal until 1979, and by then, Virginia came second to California in performing the most compulsory sterilizations.
The case was not restrained by Virginia’s borders, nor the United States’. Within America, over 60,000 sterilizations were legally performed. During the Nuremberg trials after World War II, several Nazis cited Buck v. Bell as part of their defense of Germany’s sterilization laws.
Though the 1924 Virginia Sterilization Act was eventually repealed, Buck has never been overturned.
Fifteen years after Buck, a unanimous court ruled that Skinner v. Oklahoma outlaw punitive sterilization, as well as forcing any mandatory sterilization laws to be subject to strict scrutiny.
However, forced sterilization is not a relic of the past. Between 1997 and 2010, compulsory sterilization was performed on approximately 1,400 women in California prisons.
In 2020, Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at an ICE immigrant detainment center in Georgia, filed a complaint charging that women in the facility had “been sterilized en masse without proper consent or medical necessity. Numerous women described being coerced into surgery and confused as to why the procedure was performed. Some described being yelled at by medical staff when they resisted the procedure. Many explained that they felt as if ICE was ‘experimenting with [their] bodies.’”
From Carrie Buck to sterilization in ICE detainment centers, one thing has remained constant: it is the most vulnerable—and the most marginalized—that face the brunt of the eugenics movement.
The Road Ahead
Carrie Buck Eagle Detamore died on January 28, 1983. She was buried in Charlottesville’s Oakwood Cemetery with her husband, Charlie Detamore. On May 2, 2002, Governor Mark Warner gave an apology for Virginia’s eugenics program that Carrie Detamore never heard. Along a Charlottesville road, there is a highway marker dedicated to Buck v. Bell.
It feels, sometimes, like America is built from mistakes. Mistakes that we may learn from, yes, and mistakes that form the education of the future, yes, but mistakes nonetheless.
I find the phrase “anti-canon” fascinating. No country wants to be known for its worst failures, and one prefix allows for a degree of separation. It was Americans that made the decision to deny Carrie Buck her own autonomy, and it was Americans that have upheld this decision for decades, and it was Americans that have not since overturned Buck, but one prefix makes this decision un-American. Part of the “anti-canon.” A lesson, or a unit in college constitutional law classes, or a case that slips through high school educational cracks. A mistake that America simply has to have made up for, in apologies and highway markers and symbolism.
And yet. In almost a century since the original lawsuit, Buck has yet to be overturned. A new generation of eugenics-obsessed neo-Nazis have come into the mainstream. As recently as a few years ago, former United States president Donald Trump has expressed a eugenics-based sentiment, telling a campaign ally, “You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different?”
Eugenics is not an ideology lost to time. It is not simply a sign that we left on the side of a highway; rather, eugenics is a piece of America’s history that we cannot and should not let disappear. When we forget our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
In many colleges, Buck v. Bell has become a staple of the anti-canon taught in constitutional law classes, but remembering this case means learning about it before college. I found the report Three Generations, No Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell by Paul A. Lombardo to be particularly enlightening, especially on the dynamics between Priddy, Strode, and Whitehead. Lombardo also has released a book of the same name, though I have not read it yet.
Maddix also recommends keeping a careful eye on state politics. “People need to understand that the power the state legislatures do have is a significant power, and we need to be careful who we elect to our state legislatures, because they can pass laws such as these,” he said. “What I would really express to our kids is [that] you have to pay attention to who you elect to state government.”
Reading the case itself is also helpful towards understanding the place in history that it belongs to.
Feldman’s Harvard lecture gives a different perspective of Buck that I found similarly fascinating. In forcing students to argue against Buck as Holmes wrote it, Feldman effectively trains his students to see the logical paths that would lead to a similar conclusion.
“What I’d suggest is that one of the virtues of reading a case like this and engaging with it is to try and engage with an archeology of where our conventional certainty has come from,” Feldman stated. “To try to map out the different byways and highways by which we come to think that x or y is protected by the Constitution, that x or y is morally correct… That something is an outrage.”
Venezia, too, supports the notion that education is the key to moving forward as Americans.
“I think it’s a matter of understanding the historic reaction to different groups of people that have come and different groups within the United States,” Venezia said. “When we forget about that, that’s when it tends to spring back up again.”
Editors’ note: All opinions expressed on The Uproar are a reflection solely of the beliefs of the bylined author and not the journalism program at NASH. We continue to welcome school-appropriate comments and guest articles.