By Marica Micallef
2016 saw the publication of “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck” by Adam Cohen, which was also longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
The book talks about the Supreme Court’s infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling, one of America’s great miscarriages of justice, which made government sterilization of “undesirable” citizens the law of the land.
The Supreme Court issued a ruling in 1927 that was so disturbing, ignorant, and cruel that it was considered one of the great injustices in American history.
In “Imbeciles”, best-selling author Adam Cohen exposes the court’s decision to allow the sterilization of a young woman it mistakenly thought was “feebleminded,” as well as to advocate for mass eugenic sterilization of undesirable citizens for the greater good of the country.
The 8-1 decision was signed by some of the most respected figures in American law, including former President William Howard Taft and progressive icon Louis Brandeis. The majority opinion was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, widely regarded as the greatest Supreme Court justice in history, and included the court’s famous declaration “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Buck v. Bell legal case was a gripping courtroom drama that pitted a helpless young woman against powerful scientists, lawyers, and judges who believed that eugenic measures were necessary to save the country from being “swamped with incompetence“. At the center was Carrie Buck, who was born into a poor family in Charlottesville, Virginia, and taken in by a foster family until she became pregnant out of wedlock. She was then labeled “feebleminded” and sent to the Epileptics and Feeble-Minded Colony.
Buck v. Bell occurred against the backdrop of a nation enslaved by eugenics, which many Americans believed would elevate the human race. Congress embraced this zeal, passing the first laws prohibiting the immigration of Italians, Jews, and other groups accused of being genetically inferior.
Cohen explains how Buck arrived in the colony at precisely the wrong time when influential scientists and politicians were looking for a “test case” to see if Virginia’s new eugenic sterilization law could withstand legal scrutiny. No one stood up for her, not even her lawyer, who was clearly in collusion with the men who wanted her sterilized.
Buck’s case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court, the institution established by the founders to ensure that justice prevailed. The court could have rejected the false claim that Buck was a threat to the gene pool, or it could have found that forced sterilization violated her rights. Instead, Holmes, a descendant of several prominent Boston Brahmin families who were raised to believe in the superiority of his own bloodlines, wrote a vicious, haunting decision upholding Buck’s sterilization and pleading with the nation to sterilize many more.
Holmes got his wish, and between sixty and seventy thousand Americans were sterilized before the madness ended. In his relentless pursuit of the truth, Cohen deconstructs beloved myths and demolishes revered figures.
“Imbeciles” is an ardent indictment of our champions of justice and our optimistic faith in progress, as well as a triumph of American legal and social history, with the intellectual force of a legal brief and the passion of a front-page exposé.
And here is an extract from the law enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives which was approved on 4th July, 1895, related to the above.