Russell and Duenes

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Three Generations of Imbeciles is Enough”

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Perhaps you don’t know of the 1927 Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, authored by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes describes the facts of the case thus:

Carrie Buck is a feeble minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony [for Epileptics and Feeble Minded] above mentioned in due form. She is the daughter of a feeble minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble minded child. She was eighteen years old at the time of the trial of her case in the Circuit Court, in the latter part of 1924. An Act of Virginia, approved March 20, 1924, recites that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives, under careful safeguard, &c.; that the sterilization may be effected in males by vasectomy and in females by salpingectomy, without serious pain or substantial danger to life; that the Commonwealth is supporting in various institutions many defective persons who if now discharged would become a menace but if incapable of procreating might be discharged with safety and become self-supporting with benefit to themselves and to society; and that experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, &c.

Let that sink in.

Then Holmes continues by explaining what he takes to be appropriate safeguards against “possible abuse” by forced sterilization procedures. He concludes: “There can be no doubt that so far as procedure is concerned the rights of the patient are most carefully considered, and as every step in this case was taken in scrupulous compliance with the statute and after months of observation, there is no doubt that in that respect the plaintiff in error has had due process of law.” Of course, Holmes does not describe any process by which anyone may judge the rightness or wrongness of sterilizing anyone against his or her will. And what does “due process of law” mean when it’s unmoored from any moral standard, save the utilitarian standard of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” As Stanford Neuroscience professor, William Hurlbut, has noted, “there’s no bottom to that argument.”

Having made short work of the whole issue (the case is very brief), Holmes comes to the point:

“The judgment finds the facts that have been recited and that Carrie Buck “is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,” and thereupon makes the order…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..Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

And what’s the upshot? Well, Holmes reckoned that we could now return these “mental defectives” back to society, where they can ostensibly do no harm by reproducing, and thus, make room for others in the asylums.

It’s all well and good to sneer at this decision and say that it could never happen again. We’d all like to think we’re past that sort of thing, we’re above it now. We’re guided by the lights of “science and technology.” I leave it to you to consider whether “science and technology,” wielded by evil men and women, makes things better.



Written by Michael Duenes

September 9, 2012 at 6:46 pm

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