Sterilizing the “Unfit”

Posted on February 20, 2018 By

by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the book The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics, pp. 64-66


In the 1920s, eugenicists in the United States and elsewhere pressed hard for sterilization laws, to give physicians and the heads of institutions the authority to sterilize their patients, with or without their consent. With (and sometimes without) these laws, they sterilized tens of thousands of vulnerable people. Most of the operations were salpingectomies [cutting the Fallopian tubes] and vasectomies.

American laws permitting sterilization of the feebleminded began in Pennsylvania, in 1905. Fortunately, the governor vetoed the law immediately. But other states passed laws and began to implement them. The push for sterilization did not gain full steam, though, until after World War I. Then, with the IQ tests available, the mental health lobby began promoting eugenic sterilization. By 1930, 27 states had started sterilization campaigns.

Other countries that passed or at least debated similar laws included Britain, South Africa, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland and Sweden, Norway and Switzerland.

In the United States, eugenic sterilization continued for decades. In some states, laws permitted the operation, but few were done. Some states ended the practice. But by the mid-1950s, 27 states reported almost 60,000 sterilizations performed. California led the way, with . . . 19,985. More women than men were sterilized: 23,667 men compared to 35,519 women.

Buck v. Bell

The statistics do not show the inhumanity of the sterilization campaign. To understand what the eugenics movement did, it is important to look at specific examples.

One of the most destructive dramas in the eugenics movement played out in central Virginia. Virginia’s forced sterilization law was challenged in court immediately. The case involved a young woman named Carrie Buck, who lived in an institution for the feeble-minded near Lynchburg. The head of the hospital was enthusiastic about eugenics, and many women were sterilized there without their knowledge, let alone consent. The hospital decided to sterilize Carrie Buck openly, under the new law. There was a trial in Amherst, Virginia, and “experts” testified that she was feeble-minded. In fact, the experts testified that she was from a family of immoral degenerates. Carrie and her mother and her “illegitimate” daughter were all judged to be unfit.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision that opened the floodgates of forced sterilization and permitted 30 states to assault 60,000 people over the next 40 years. The key sentence in the decision was simple: “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” The Court voted 8-1 (with only Pierce Butler dissenting) to allow the states to sterilize the dysgenic.

Carrie Buck with her mother Emma Buck; her baby Vivian


Who were these “three generations of imbeciles”?

Generation of imbeciles #1.

Emma Buck was not a model citizen. She lived in Charlottesville, with no fixed address, and got in various kinds of trouble. At some point, social workers decided that the time had come to get her off the streets, and there was a hearing to determine whether she was feeble-minded. The hearing was little more than a formality, but it was still degrading. Her inquisitor tested her ability to carry out simple tasks by demanding that she pick up a book and deliver it to someone else in the room. She ignored this demeaning request. Her refusal—dignified or spunky or sullen, take your pick— was taken as evidence of feeblemindedness, and Emma Buck was locked up in a hospital near Lynchburg.

Generation of imbeciles #2.

Emma had three children: Carrie, Doris and Roy. Carrie became pregnant when she was a teenager, so the Commonwealth sterilized her. Doris was also sterilized, although she didn’t even know what they had done to her until a reporter showed her and her husband the hospital records decades later. Finally understanding why they had no children, she wept. Roy had three children, so the Buck family may have survived despite the grim determination of the eugenicists.

When the mother, Emma, was locked up, Carrie was placed in foster care in Charlottesville. Things worked passably until she became pregnant. Years after the event, when she had no reason to lie (although there was no way to corroborate her story), she said that she became pregnant when her guardian’s nephew raped her. Her guardian, whether or not he knew the father’s identity, was apparently mortified by her pregnancy and swept her out of society along with her mother. Carrie was institutionalized because she was pregnant, which indicated to some people that she was an immoral, feebleminded, syphilitic Jukes & Kallikaks epidemic in the making. After some years in the hospital near Lynchburg, she wangled her way out as a domestic worker, and made her way in the world. She married a local sheriff named William Eagle. After his death, she moved north to Front Royal, Virginia, where she picked apples and married Charles Detamore, an orchard worker. She did some cleaning and nursing. Her life was not extraordinary, but no one who knew her after she left Lynchburg ever considered her feebleminded.

Generation of imbeciles #3.

Carrie’s child, Vivian, was declared feeble-minded because she did not smile and coo at a social worker who visited her as an infant one afternoon. Vivian went to school in Charlottesville, and was a normal student. Despite her failure to coo as an infant, she was on the honor roll one spring. She died of the measles when she was eight.

Three generations of imbeciles: a street person who didn’t jump when ordered to do so, a rape victim, and an honor student.


For other  excerpts from this book, see:

Plato’s Words about Eugenics

The Jukes and Kallikaks “Studies”

Post World War II Eugenics

Eugenics in Roe v. Wade


For our post on the Buck v. Bell case in the context of other US Supreme Court decisions, see Our Experience with Overturning Terrible Court Decisions

See The Tragedy of Carrie Buck for our book review of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.





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