Buck v. BellAlex Contis, Caity Dolan, and Anna Lockwood
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Case Title
Carrie Buck v. James Hendren Bell, Superintendent of State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded.
Date of HearingThis case was argued on April 22, 1927, and decided on May 2, 1927.
Summary and Analysisexternal image 10_Carrie_and_Emma_Buck.jpgThe case of Buck vs. Bell centralizes around a topic we have openly discussed in class: eugenics. In 1924, Virginia passed a eugenics law authorizing compulsory sterilization of the mentally retarded. After this, Albert Sidney Priddy, superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded, petitioned to the board of directors in his institution to sterilize 18-year-old Carrie Buck. The plaintiff, Carrie Buck, and her mother, Emma, were both considered "feeble-minded" and promiscuous due to the fact that they both had children out of wedlock. The government also considered Carrie's young daughter "feeble-minded" at the age of only seven months. While Priddy’s petition was making its way through the court system, Priddy died and his successor, James Hendren Bell, took over Carrie’s litigation. The Board of Directors at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded agreed to surgically sterilize Carrie through salpingectomy, and then they appealed the case to the Circuit Court of Amherst County, and that court also agreed with the board. The case then moved to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia.The United States Supreme Court ultimately upheld the statue that it was alright to sterilize people considered generally unfit for society, therefore legitimizing the new Virginian eugenics laws. This very verdict was delivered with the famous line: "three generations of imbeciles are enough" rectifying the injustice of the eugenics age.
Main Issue and Argumentsexternal image buck-v-bell3.jpg?w=300Is it okay to take away the right to reproduce fromthose “unfit” for society? Sterilization can be defined as any procedure by which an individual is incapable of reproducing any longer and eugenics was a worldwide effort to eliminate the world of the lower tenth percent. In the early 20th century, if a person was promiscuous, an alcoholic, a petty criminal or an epileptic they automatically found themselves trapped in the “feeble minded” category, and therefore a potential compulsory sterilization victim. There were two paths to take with people of this nature: sterilize them for the betterment of society, or leave them be and allow them the rights entitled to them as a citizen of the United States. Buck v. Bell was a case that proved to the public of the time that it was alright to take away the right to reproduce, from those who were “unfit” to do so. Carrie Buck lost her inalienable rights, through something that she couldn’t control and because of the judgement of her peers.
Relevant Documents and Constitutional AmendmentsFourteenth AmendmentThe 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on July 9, 1868. It granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and it forbids states from denying any person "life, liberty or property, without due process of law" or to "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Buck v. Bell was a landmark case because it seemingly violated the 14th amendment to the constitution, but ultimately this amendment was overruled in favor of the betterment of Americans and the state of Virginia (as opposed to allowing citizens their rights).Fifth AmendmentThe 5th Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, protects against authority abuse (by the government) in a legal procedure or court case. Basically, the 5th Amendment protects citizens from the government by enforcing a “substantive and procedural due process of law”. Carrie Buck’s case violated this due process of law, and she was used as a test case for the state of Virginia-- they ignored major amendments to the constitution in favor of flexing their power over best interest and inalienable rights.external image Eugenics%20Tree.jpg
Documents Outlining EugenicsMany authors wrote out "guidelines" for a eugenics system and its definition in the United States, and these documents were used to outline laws for compulsory sterilization and alteration of the gene pool (negatively). Charles Davenport wrote "Eugenics, the Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding". This was a well known and important pro-eugenics document, which can be read in full online here.


Court DecisionUltimately, the justices agreed in favor of the defendant. Justice Holmes delivered the verdict, claiming that it was just to sterilize the feeble minded for the good of society. This decision blazed the trail for more than 30 other states to develop eugenics and sterilization laws of their own. In fact, Germany modeled its own eugenics laws after that of Virginia. The last of the sterilization laws were terminated in 1970s.
Members of the Court and VotesChief Justice
William H. Taft
William H. Taft
Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft was at the helm of the American judicial system during the Buck v. Bell case. Born in 1857, and into a the family of a distinguished judge, Taft was Teddy Roosevelt’s right hand man and was passed the metaphorical torch in 1909 to become 27th president of the United States. President Taft can be most fondly remembered for his over-sized bathtub to account for his surplus of flesh; however, he failed to get re-elected after serving his first term in the oval office, getting fewer votes than TR, even though TR ran as a third party. With new found spare time on his hands, Taft served as Professor of Law at Yale University. 29th President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during his presidency and he held his sacred position until his death in 1930. Taft considered being Chief Justice the ultimate accomplishment in his life, he wrote; "I don't remember that I ever was President." (there should be some more here on Taft's tenure as CJ).Members Chief Justice William Howard Taft: 9 yearsJustice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr: 30 yearsWillis Van Devanter: 27 yearsJames C. McReynolds: 27 years Louis Brandeis: 23 years George Sutherland: 12 years Pierce Butler: 17 years Edward T. Sanford: 7 years Harlan F. Stone: 16 years as associate, 5 as Chief Justice, 21 years in totalVotes and DissentingEight of the members of the Court: Taft, Holmes, Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Sanford, and Stone, voted in favor of legalizing sterilization, leaving Bulter as the only dissenting. Majority rules, and the case was closed on a vote of 8-1. (Why did Butler dissent?)
Personal Opinion
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The eugenics age was a very dark point in America's history-- then, we essentially abandoned what it mean to be American. It is not ethically or morally right to take away someone's right to reproduce. The phrase "feeble-minded" should not be used in medical terms to describewhy some people are different than others. Eugenics stripped us of our rights and freedom, it even took away some people's choice to decide their future. Compulsory sterilization and other medical procedures--think lobotomies--we performed on citizens of the U.S., without their consent and often without their knowledge. Buck v. Bell started off right, as a fight for a woman's freedom to reproduce. As it moved up through the different courts, however, it became a case mainly just to legitimize Virginia's new negative eugenics laws, and Carrie Buck was unfairly used as a guinea pig. Her life was irrevocably changed. The outcome of this case was fairly and legally decided, but the case itself was a violation of our Constitution and an embarrassment to the integrity and moral standards of our country.

What If This Case Had Gone the Other Way?If this case had gone the other way then the policy of eugenics probably would not have spread as rapidly. After upholding Virginia's decision to sterilize the Bucks, the Supreme Court gave the green light to 30 other states to pass their own versions of eugenics laws. There are still humans alive today that have been sterilized or portions of their family have been sterilized. Without early eugenics pushers like Virginia and "excuse" cases like Buck v. Bell, negative eugenics in the U.S. may not have gotten as out of hand as it did. True, eugenics probably would have still gotten a foothold and grown, but Buck v. Bell gave it the publicity and legalization that it needed to spiral into something national. Perhaps if the Supreme Court didn't uphold the decision to sterilize the Bucks, eugenics would have been postponed, and its opposers would have gotten a better chance to fight against it. Who knows what might have happened-- the past is the past and we can't go back in time. Americans have tried to forget this lapse of democracy and equality in our past, but that doesn't mean it never happened and doesn't affect us today.

ENTERTAINING AND RELEVANT MOVIE: Feel free to check out Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story, starring Marlee Matlin.




5.5/7 - Biblio - alphabetize and indent second line 25.5/28 -- Content -- good explanation of laws affected, but include more on Taft's CJ tenure and why Butler dissented5/5 Organization - good use of photos36/40 TotalBibliographyImage Archive on the American Eugenics Movement. Rep. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/static/themes/39.html>.
"American President: William Howard Taft: A Life in Brief." Miller Center. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://millercenter.org/president/taft/essays/biography/1>.
"Buck v. Bell." Legal Information Institute. 22 Apr. 1927. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0274_0200_ZO.html>.
"Buck v. Bell." Michael Ariens. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://www.michaelariens.com/ConLaw/cases/buck.htm>.
"Buck v. Bell." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_v._Bell>.
"CVTC Feedback Page." Central Virginia Training Center. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://www.cvtc.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/feedback.htm>.
"Eugenics: Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Virginia, Eugenics & Buck v. Bell." Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/eugenics/>.
"Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution>.
"Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution>.

"14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress)." Library of Congress Home. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/14thamendment.html>.
Davenport, Charles, "Eugenics, The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding" (2009).College of Law Faculty Publications. Paper 75. http://digitalarchive.gsu.edu/col_facpub/75Buck v. Bell: Due Process of Law? Walter Berns. The Western Political Quarterly. Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 1953), pp. 762-775. Published by: University of Utah on behalf of the Western Political Science Association. http://www.jstor.org/stable/443203