By Robert A. Vella
Yes, you read that right. In yet another example of how poorly Americans understand their own history, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1927 – which affirmed the practice of compulsory sterilization “for the protection and health of the state” – has never been overturned and still stands as a legal precedent. This case, one of the most notorious in U.S. history, is known as Buck v. Bell.
As a result, America became the very first nation to embrace systematic sterilization, and over 65,000 of its citizens in 33 states were so “treated” solely for the purposes of eugenics (i.e. the belief in improving the quality of the human population through genetic control). Although the eugenicists’ publicly-stated rationale for forced sterilizations centered on mental incompetency, its true aims were much more devious. Eugenics, as we now know, was developed as a means to cull “undesirable” elements from the reproductive gene pool – primarily by Anglo-Saxon Protestants motivated from white supremacist and Christian fundamentalist doctrines – which specifically targeted blacks, other ethnic minorities, and poor whites (e.g. Catholics).
The ramifications of Buck v. Bell were felt far beyond U.S. borders. The Nazis in prewar Germany cited the case as justification for its persecution (later genocide) of Jews, and again cited it during the postwar Nuremberg trials (superbly characterized in the highly acclaimed 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg).
The author in the following video pulls no punches in his critique of this egregious judicial ruling which he compares to other inhumane decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court – namely Dred Scott v. Sandford (i.e. blacks cannot be citizens), Plessy v. Ferguson (i.e. racial segregation is constitutional), and Korematsu v. United States (i.e. internment of Japanese-Americans is constitutional). The author also illuminates the sadistic pleasure exhibited by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of the most respected jurists in American history.
Our modern understanding of this case is especially important and relevant today considering the possibility that a megalomaniac nationalist (i.e. Donald Trump) or a radical ideologue (i.e. Ted Cruz) could win the 2016 presidential election this fall. That its legal precedent could be used to re-implement eugenics laws throughout the United States should be of utmost concern for all Americans.
Watch the one-hour video from C-SPAN titled Book Discussion on Imbeciles:
Adam Cohen talked about his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, in which he recounts the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision to allow the state of Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck for being an “imbecile.” The justices who composed the majority included William Howard Taft, Louis Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who authored the decision that resulted in the sterilization of 70,000 people considered mentally “defective.”