Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell
Susan Stefan, J.D. - June 2009
Paul A. Lombardo’s new book, Three Generations, No Imbeciles, is both a fascinating history and a thoroughly modern cautionary tale about the problems that society has always had imagining people with disabilities both having sex and having families. It is the in-depth story of the deceptions, pressures, and paradoxes behind the sterilization of Carrie Buck and the path to the infamous Supreme Court decision of Buck v. Bell. In 1927 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld the sterilization of Carrie Buck and others like her with the infamous sentence, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (1).
Lawyers are supposed to protect citizens from this kind of overreaching by the government. Carrie Buck was assigned a lawyer and an expert witness, and she had hearings all the way to the Supreme Court, but, as Lombardo shows, the outcome of her case was never in question. Her lawyer was a prominent sterilization advocate with ties to the institution petitioning for her sterilization. The expert witness had a eugenics agenda. Neither Carrie Buck nor her child, Vivian, was an “imbecile” at all, but evidence supporting her, and known at the time, was suppressed. Buck v. Bell gave the imprimatur of authority to the sterilization of thousands of people with disabilities, many of whom were in mental institutions. Sterilization for social purposes continued well into the mid-1970s, when, as Lombardo discusses, between 100,000 and 150,000 welfare recipients with low incomes, belonging to racial or ethnic minority groups, and often having disabilities, were coerced unknowingly into sterilization.
Fixed To Fail: Buck vs. Bell
While Virginia and other states have recently apologized for their role in the involuntary sterilization of those labeled as “feebleminded” , the Supreme Court ruling that sanctioned those sterilizations has never been overruled - so the precedent still stands.
But the case of Carrie Buck also established a precedent in deception: Carrie Buck’s lawyer conspired with the opposing lawyer to guarantee that her challenge would fail, so that the sterilization law would be upheld by the highest court.
This is a presentation revealing the strategy of deception that masquerades as justice in the US.