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“Three Generations Of Imbeciles Are Enough”

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So said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the United States Supreme Court in a case that blew me away when I first encountered it in law school. The case is Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927). Virginia passed a law allowing the state to forcibly sterilize certain “mental defectives” to promote “the health of the patient and the welfare of society.” Shockingly, not all of these folks wanted to be sterilized. Carrie Buck, a resident of the State Colony for Epilectics and Feeble Minded, was one such person. When you read how Justice Holmes sets forth the case, you can probably guess how it came down. (I guess the title of the post offers a small hint too.) Here’s what he said:

Carrie Buck is a feeble minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony … She is the daughter of a feeble minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble minded child.

Here is Justice Holmes’ reasoning and conclusion:

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 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 a 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. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (emphasis added)
Almost 20 years after I first read the case, it still sends chills down my spine.

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