“Three Generations of Imbeciles is Enough”

October 14, 2009

Ah, the good old days! A time when Supreme Court judges could speak their minds, free of the P.C. Police cracking down on them in the court of public opinion. The above quote is from Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing the majority opinion in Buck v. Bell. In this case the court upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia compulsory sterilization law enforced upon the mentally retarded.

This unfortunate ruling came at a time when eugenics enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Carrie Buck, an 18 year old who was said to have a mental age of 9, was subjected to a forced tubal ligation as a result of the decision. Holmes wrote that “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

This decision provided the impetus for other states to enact compulsory sterilization laws. Virginia’s remained on the books until the early 1970’s. Virginia Governor Mark Warner offered an official apology for his state’s compulsory sterilization laws in 2002, on the 75th anniversary of the decision. Buck v. Bell has never been formally overturned.

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