Buck v. Bell: A Sad Story of Injustice

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    • 00:01


    • 00:12

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN: Hello, my name is Alison Dundes Renteln.I'm a professor of political science, anthropology, lawand public policy, at the University of SouthernCalifornia.[Presentation Topics]This case study examines a court case.And this court case shows the dangersof uncritical acceptance of the prevailing scientific ideas

    • 00:33

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: of the day.What happens when there's a paradigm shift in science,and yet, the law remains fixed?This case study also shows the potentialfor governmental abuse of power.In Buck versus Bell, the US Supreme Courthad the opportunity to evaluate compulsory sterilization

    • 00:53

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: to determine whether it was consistentwith the Constitution.In a surprising decision by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes,known as the patron saint of civil liberties,compulsory sterilization was found consistentwith the Constitution.Justice Holmes rejected all of the challenges

    • 01:15

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: to compulsory sterilization.And to this day this precedent has never been overturned.[Background]Let me begin with the background of this case.This is the story of Carrie Buck,a young woman-- just turned 18, her little baby daughter,

    • 01:35

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: Vivian, and her mother Emma.And it's the story of the Dobbs family.Carrie Buck lived with the Dobbs familyafter her mother, Emma, was put in the LynchburgColony for the Feebleminded.The Dobbs family adopted Carrie, and she lived with them

    • 01:56

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: until the time that they could no longer take care of her,and they placed her in the same colony where her mother lived.Eugenicists were involved in a campaignto secure legal authorization for compulsory sterilization.This was one of the main techniques used

    • 02:18

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: to try to prevent, quote, feeble-minded people,from reproducing.So there were lawyers looking for a test case.And one of the lawyers, part of this story, was Mr. Strode.He was the author of the Virginia Law, a law thatwas modeled after something Harry

    • 02:38

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: Laughlin, a eugenics expert, had written in the Eugenics RecordOffice.Mr. Strode was the lawyer for the institution,where Carrie Buck and her mother, were living.The superintendent of the colony was initially a mannamed Dr. Pretty, later he was replaced

    • 03:01

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: by Dr. Bell, that's why the case is called Buck versus Bell.The story also involves Mr. Whitehead,the lawyer who was appointed to representCarrie when she was subject to the sterilization order.After she was subject to sterilization,an appeal was taken from the board,

    • 03:22

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: which approved the sterilization, to the courtsystem.And a series of constitutional objectionswere raised to her sterilization.They were rejected, the case went on appeal.The Court of Appeals approved the decisionto have her sterilized, and so the casemade its way to the United States Supreme Court.

    • 03:43

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: And in this landmark decision, Buck versus Bell, in 1927,Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes endorsedeugenics sterilization.Justice Holmes was known for his enthusiasm for eugenics.In fact he had written an essay called, "Lawin Science, Science In Law."

    • 04:05

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: And he believed that it was importantfor scientific expertise to be considered by courts.And he was a great advocate of this kind of thinking.And Justice Holmes was not alone,the eugenics movement was extremely popular,

    • 04:25

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: not only among elites, but even in the community.The kinds of legal arguments that the court consideredincluded, whether sterilization violated a constitutional rightto bodily integrity.And this was thought to be an important argument,but the fact that the government could require children

    • 04:48

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: to be vaccinated was thought to bea precedent sufficiently broad in scopeto justify sterilization.There was also an argument based on due processthat was put forward.And the concern was, whether whenpeople were ordered to be sterilized,they had any way to challenge that decision.

    • 05:10

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: But the Virginia law that was challenged in this casehad been drafted very carefully to avoid the objections thathad been made for other eugenic sterilization laws.So that when Carrie was told she had to be sterilized,then she was appointed a lawyer, the lawyer then appealed itto the board of the colony, then it

    • 05:30

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: went to the different courts.So Justice Holmes thought that the due process objectionhad been met.And there was this concern about equal protection.The argument that, if the purpose of the lawwas to sterilize feeble-minded people,is it fair only to sterilize those in institutions?

    • 05:50

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: The law was not being applied in such a way asto sterilize people who are outside of institutions.So this was an equal protection objection,but it was one that Justice Holmes rejected.So in the final analysis, Justice Holmesrejected all of the constitutional challenges,and upheld compulsory sterilization,

    • 06:12

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: based on eugenics.There was one dissenting opinion by one of the judges,and it was Justice Butler.But there was no written opinion,so historians don't know, for sure, whatthe basis was of his objection.He was known to be a staunch conservative and Catholic,and it may be that the idea of sterilization

    • 06:33

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: was inconsistent with his moral beliefs and his worldview.Justice Holmes' decision is famous for the coda,the rhetorical coda, three generations of imbecilesare enough.But the passage in the decision thatjustifies this extreme action by the government

    • 06:58

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: is the following, quote "we have seen more than oncethat the public welfare may call upon the best of citizensfor their lives.It would be strange if it could notcall upon those who already sap the strength of the Statefor these lesser sacrifices, often notfelt to be such by those concerned,

    • 07:19

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.It is better for all the world, if insteadof waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime,or let them starve for their imbecility,society can prevent those who aremanifestly unfit from continuing their kind."End quote.So this is or ever remarkable type of reasoning

    • 07:44

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: for the United States Supreme Court,and again, awed to be coming from the patronsaint of civil liberties.[Effect of the Case]So after this decision was handed down,let's talk about what happened in the aftermath.Carrie Buck was sterilized, and the United States

    • 08:06

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: recognized that compulsory sterilizationwas a legitimate governmental purpose.Although the frequency of sterilization did not increase,the potential for doing so expanded.And certainly the fact that this is still a precedentmeans, that there can still be sterilizationabuse in the United States.

    • 08:27

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: This case allowed for 60,000 Americansto be sterilized without their consent.And the Virginia Law, alone, was responsible for 8,300sterilizations.In recent times some states have seenfit to have their governors make apologies.And in a few states like North Carolina

    • 08:49

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: there is discussion underway to have reparations.But for the most part this tragic episodein American history has been largely overlooked.[Revisionist Interpretation]This episode turns out to be differentfrom the standard explanation in Constitutional

    • 09:13

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: Law and historical texts.And it's important for students to knowthe revisionist account of the story of Buck versus Bell.So it's clear that one of the reasons why the SupremeCourt authorized sterilization was because some people wereunable to support themselves.

    • 09:34

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: And it seemed clear to the Supreme Court,and to eugenicists, that we shouldhave contempt for people who are unable to takecare of themselves.And that's highly problematic.But the point is that Carrie Bach was not someone whowas incapable of self-support.We now know that many of the facts thatare thought to be part of the record were simply false.

    • 09:57

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: This research was brought to light by Professor PaulLombardo, who in the 1980s did research,and he discovered that there was collusion among the lawyers.That the lawyers in the Buck v Bell casehad orchestrated this lawsuit in orderto achieve the result of a Supreme Court authorizing

    • 10:18

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: sterilization.They used this case as a test caseto legitimize this public policy.So Carrie Buck's lawyer, Mr. Whitehead,raised certain constitutional arguments,but it's interesting he never actually challengethe basis of the decision.

    • 10:38

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: He never questioned eugenics itself,he never questioned some of the claims that were madeabout Carrie Buck's character.First of all, there was scanty evidence about Carrie Buck'ssupposedly feeblemindedness.There was some information that whenshe went to school, up until sixth grade,that she was antisocial, according to the teacher,

    • 11:00

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: because she passed notes to boys.Not really sure if that's antisocial.But she seemed to have pretty average records of her schoolperformance.And the fact that she sang in a choir,and often went to church, these kinds of factswere not mentioned by her lawyer,

    • 11:21

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: to show that she was of good character,that she was relatively intelligent,and did well in school.And so the point is that, her lawyer was not incompetent,and not negligent.He failed because he was set out to fail.Professor Lombardo's research showedthat this was a complete violation of legal ethics,

    • 11:41

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: for there to be this kind of collusion among the lawyers.It's a violation of legal ethics for lawyersto share with each other the informationthat either side has.And Strode, who was the lawyer for the colony,and Whitehead, who was Carrie Buck's lawyer,were childhood friends, they worked togetheron the eugenics campaign.So it's completely unethical what happened in this case.

    • 12:01

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: Furthermore, what Professor Lombardo discoveredwas, that Carrie Buck was sterilized justbefore her 18th birthday, when she when she had given birthto a little baby, and it was in those days, illegitimate.And while that may not matter today, in those days,it was a sign of her not being a moral person, supposedly.

    • 12:24

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: Professor Lombardo discovered quite shocking information,that the reason that Carrie Buck had become pregnantwas because she had been raped by the Dobbs' nephew.And so she was put away in the institution,not because she wasn't intelligent,not because she couldn't support herself,but because they were trying to savethe reputation of the family.

    • 12:46

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: And that's why she ended up in that colony, whereshe was eventually sent off to be sterilized.[Conclusion]This is a tragic story of governmental abuse of power.It suggests that the right to procreate,the right to be a parent, must be taken more seriously.

    • 13:08

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: And that research is very important,that the research that Professor Lombardo did,if it had been available at the time,could have made a tremendous difference.Buck versus Bell also shows the risksassociated with having judges tooeager to embrace the prevailing scientific ideology of the day.

    • 13:28

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: The fact that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was so enamoredof eugenics means that there was notsufficient critical reflection on the basis for this decision.Having considered this sad story of injustice,we should turn now to some reflective questions.

    • 13:49

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: How important is parenting in the 21st century?Should the government control the ability of individualsto be parents?Do individuals with disabilities have the rightto have children?Certainly the treaty, the Conventionon the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,the first human rights treaty in the 21st century,

    • 14:10

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: suggests that people with disabilitiesshould have the same opportunities as everyone else.It's also true that parents with disabilitiesmay not have children with disabilities,and if there is some kind of support system for parentswho have disabilities, that they may be able to raise children

    • 14:31

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: in their own homes.This case raises the question of whether the right to procreateis a fundamental right.The Supreme Court, after Buck v Bell,did decide in Skinner versus Oklahoma, that the rightto procreate was a important constitutional right,but only in the context of a decision prohibiting

    • 14:52

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: sterilization of repeat offenders in prison.It did not overturn Buck versus Bell.So it's important to ask, should the governmentlimit who can be a parent?This case also seems to highlight the importancewe place on intelligence.[Reflective Questions]Why is that such an important value in our society?

    • 15:13

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: Why is it that we use intelligence quotienttests, and SATs, and LSATs, and all these standardized tests?Why don't we measure the ability of peopleto be compassionate, or have a sense of humor,or to be generous?It's interesting that intelligenceis the reason for the sterilization,or the lack of intelligence.

    • 15:34

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: What do you think should be the traits that wevalue most in a society?I'd like to end in discussing the story of Carrie Buck'ssister.It's not a story as well-known.And I'm going to quote a passage about Doris Buck.Quote, "Doris Buck was sterilized under the same law

    • 15:56

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: as Carrie in 1928.She later married Matthew Figgins, a plumber,but Doris Buck was never informed."And, I want to explain that she and her husbandwent to three different clinics and doctors,and they never discovered that she had been sterilized.Let me tell you what she said when she found out.

    • 16:17

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: Quote, "I broke down and cried.My husband and me wanted children desperately.We were crazy about them.I never knew what they'd done to me."End quote.For further reading see, Paul Lombardo, Three Generations,No Imbeciles, Eugenics, the Supreme Court,and Buck versus Bell.Mary Dudziak, "Oliver Wendell Holmes

    • 16:39

      ALISON DUNDES RENTELN [continued]: as a Eugenic Reformer, Rhetoric in the Writingof Constitutional Law," Iowa Law Review.And Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man.[MUSIC]

Buck v. Bell: A Sad Story of Injustice

View Segments Segment :


In this case study of Buck v. Bell, Professor Alison Dundes Renteln discusses the problems that occur when legal decisions are based on bad science. Based on unquestioning support for the eugenics movement, in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order to forcibly sterilize “feebleminded” people. Despite research that has cast doubt on this judgment of Carrie Buck’s intelligence, the court ruling has never been overturned.

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Buck v. Bell: A Sad Story of Injustice

In this case study of Buck v. Bell, Professor Alison Dundes Renteln discusses the problems that occur when legal decisions are based on bad science. Based on unquestioning support for the eugenics movement, in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order to forcibly sterilize “feebleminded” people. Despite research that has cast doubt on this judgment of Carrie Buck’s intelligence, the court ruling has never been overturned.

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