What is known as the Progressive Movement in the United States lasted from the late 19th century until the 1940s. While many positive social reforms occurred, there were also laws enacted in which people who were thought to be “inferior” in some way were subjected to medical tests and treatments. If an individual was found to be "unfit" they were sometimes institutionalized or forcibly sterilized so that certain traits that were believed to be hereditary would not be passed on to future generations. These traits included insanity, criminal tendencies, shiftlessness, promiscuity, and “feeble-mindedness." Virginia and other states added criteria to marriage applications requiring that applicants swear that they were not “a habitual criminal, idiot, imbecile, hereditary epileptic, or insane.” Virginia started its sterilization program in 1916, and it was codified into law in 1924 with the Virginia Sterilization Act. By 1940, twenty-eight states had authorized compulsory sterilization of inmates in mental institutions. The path to these laws was paved in 1927 when the United States Supreme Court upheld a state’s right to sterilize a person deemed unfit to have children in Buck v. Bell.
Born in Charlottesville, Carrie E. Buck (1906–1983) was raised by foster parents after her biological mother was diagnosed as being of low intelligence and committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. Pregnant at age 18, Carrie Buck stated that she had been raped by her foster parents' nephew, but her foster parents claimed that her promiscuous behavior was the reason and was proof that she should also be committed to the Colony.
The colony's superintendent believed in the necessity of sterilization and selected Carrie Buck, who had been diagnosed as "feebleminded," or of less than average intelligence, to be the subject of a test case to ensure that Virginia's 1924 law was constitutional. This document is an excerpt from the testimony of Dr. Albert S. Priddy, superintendent until his death in 1925, after which he was replaced by Dr. John H. Bell. Priddy’s testimony comes from a brief prepared for the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which confirmed that the sterilization law was constitutional in 1927. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Carrie Buck was sterilized a few months later.
During the Nuremberg trials after World War II, several Nazis on trial based their defense of Germany's sterilization laws on the prevalence of such laws in the United States and the Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell. More than 60,000 Americans, including 8,300 Virginians, were sterilized by the time these laws were repealed in the 1970s. In 2002 the governor issued a formal apology to those Virginians who had been involuntarily sterilized.
Citation: Buck v. Bell, Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, Brief for Appellee, September Term 1925, Records of Western State Hospital, 1825-2000, Box 88, Folder 27, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.
For more information on Carrie Buck, read her Dictionary of Virginia Biography entry.
Scan It: Scan the document. What do you notice about the purpose of document from the cover page? Do any words or phrases stand out to you? Why did they stand out?
Food For Thought: Think about how far society has progressed in the treatment of those who may need special services for a variety of health or mental health reasons. Is there anything that may be done better to assist people in need? Explain.
Be the Journalist: You are a 21st century journalist writing a story about the Buck v. Bell case and how it impacts society today. Who would you interview? What are three questions you might ask to get the information you seek?