Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being "Feeble Minded" in the 20th Century
Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being “Feeble Minded” in the 20th Century

Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being “Feeble Minded” in the 20th Century

Stephanie Schoppert - September 11, 2017

Eugenics is a thought process that has been behind some of the greatest evil the world has ever known. The idea of purifying the gene pool of getting the best and brightest to move forward has been heralded by some as a modern equivalent of Darwinism. However, the truth is that it can become a brutal practice that robs the rights of many in order to force them to fit into what the few believe to be a perfect person. While the United States has always portrayed itself as a country that fought for individual rights and liberties, that did not always extend to those who were considered to be dim-witted or unintelligent.

The movement to sterilize the “feeble-minded” is linked to one particular court case in 1927. Carrie Buck was a woman that most would probably not look twice at. She had average features and was not born into the best of circumstances. She wasn’t overly bright but she wasn’t overly dumb either. She was somewhat feeble-minded but mostly just average in every way. In 1924, the Commonwealth of Virginia had jumped on the eugenics bandwagon and adopted a statute that required compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled.

Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being “Feeble Minded” in the 20th Century
Eugenics Map of the U.S.

It was on September 10, 1924, that Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to have Carrie Buck sterilized. He petitioned the board on the grounds that the 18-year-old had a mental age of 9. Her mother was also a resident of the colony and was purported to have a mental age of 8. According to Dr. Priddy, Carrie’s mother, Emma, had a history of prostitution and immorality. Emma Buck was 52 and had three children with no real idea of who their fathers were.

Carrie Buck was the oldest of the three children and had been adopted out when it was decided that Emma was in no condition to care for her. Carrie attended school for five years and reached 6th grade. Her adopted family decided that she was “incorrigible” and washed their hands of Carrie when the girl found herself pregnant at 17. The family decided that they were no longer capable of caring for Carrie and had her committed to the State Colony for being “feeble-minded.” By some accounts, this story is one of a family just over their heads with a special needs child and doing what they saw best.

At least that was the narrative for a while and it was the narrative for those who wanted to have Carrie sterilized. But the story that eventually came to light was that Carrie’s pregnancy occurred not because of Carrie’s immorality, but because of someone else’s. In 1923 Carrie’s adoptive mother was away due to “illness” and Carrie was left behind. It was during her adoptive mother’s absence that Carrie’s adopted cousin (her adopted mother’s nephew) raped her. When the pregnancy was discovered, the family sought to protect their reputation and had Carrie committed.

Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being “Feeble Minded” in the 20th Century
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who wrote the opinion for Buck v. Bell.

With little say in the matter, Carrie’s case went to trial. The trial was long with Dr. Priddy dying before its conclusion. Dr. John Hendren Bell took over the case for Priddy and continued to argue that Carrie, her mother, and her daughter were all “feeble-minded” and a drain on the system and that any child born of any of them would be more of the same. The Board of Directors ruled in favor of sterilization which led to Carrie and her guardian taking the case up through the court system, eventually landing in the Supreme Court.

The case is made on behalf of Carrie was that her due process rights which allowed all adults to procreate were being violated. They also argued that the 14th amendment for Equal Protection Under the Law was being violated because not everyone in the state was being treated the same. There were those remanded to other institutions or not remanded to institutions at all that were not being sterilized. The prosecution relied on reports from doctors and reports from those who saw Carrie and her mother as immoral and promiscuous.

On May 2, 1927, the Supreme Court reached their decision. It was an 8-1 ruling and the Supreme Court agreed with all of the arguments of the prosecution. They declared that Carrie and her mother were “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” and that it was in the state’s best interests for them to be sterilized. The ruling stated that compulsory vaccination was broad enough to cover cutting Fallopian tubes and therefore the state could force sterilization on Carrie. The ruling concluded with “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

There was no other recourse for Carrie Buck and she was operated on and forced to have a tubal ligation. After having her tubes tied she was released from the State Colony and sent to work as a domestic servant to a family in Bland, Virginia. She loved books and was always known to be reading all the way up until her death at the age of 76. Her daughter was ruled to be “feeble-minded” even though the young child excelled at school and was even on the honor roll. The true intelligence of the girl was never really determined however as she died from an intestinal infection in 1932.

The case had lasting impacts as it legitimized the use of sterilization at institutions in Virginia and throughout the U.S. Historians have now found that Carrie’s lawyer did a poor job of arguing her case. He failed to call important witnesses, only went along with the diagnosis given by the doctors at the institution. It was also found that he was in favor of eugenics and had signed off on sterilization for the feeble-minded in the past. He was also involved with the State Colony of Virginia as a member of their governing board. Some now think that he was working against Carrie in order to promote mass sterilization.

Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being “Feeble Minded” in the 20th Century
Eugenics propaganda in the U.S. Many people supported eugenics up until the 1970s.

With the approval of the Supreme Court, forced sterilization became more widespread. At the time many states had eugenics laws on the books but actual sterilization was rare and practically non-existent in all states but California. After the ruling of Buck v. Bell, many states re-examined their eugenics laws. Some re-wrote the laws to mimic those in Virginia following the ruling. Suddenly eugenics and the sterilization of those who were deemed unfit to have children had much greater appeal and states were eager to implement their own sterilization procedures.

A study by the eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin found that many physicians prior to the ruling refused to do sterilizations because they feared prosecution from their patients. In response, Harry H. Laughlin created a “Model Law” which allowed for sterilization and passed constitutional scrutiny. It ended up being a big inspiration for Hitler and the Third Reich in their own eugenics efforts. In fact, the Third Reich offered Harry H. Laughlin an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1936. At the Nuremberg trials, many Nazi doctors cited Laughlin’s “Model Law” as part of their defense.

From 1927, sterilization rates as per eugenics laws climbed steadily. California had always led the country in eugenics sterilization and had performed 20,000 eugenics sterilizations from 1909 until 1979. By 1961, more than 60,000 compulsory sterilizations had been performed in the United States with more than 60% of those sterilized being women. It was believed that since women were the ones that bore the children, they were more responsible for the creation of “less desirable” members of society. In the 1970s, eugenics and compulsory sterilization took a much darker turn.

It was during the 1970s that activist groups discovered the efforts by some doctors and programs to sterilize the poor and disenfranchised members of society. More than 2,000 poor black women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent. The victims were all women in the south who were already mothers of multiple children. In one court case, it was revealed that some Latina women were coerced or forced to be sterilized after their cesarean sections. Another case found that two young black girls were sterilized after their illiterate mother was tricked into signing a waiver. These cases revealed the abuse of federal funds to promote eugenics efforts.

Despite the abuses in the 1970s, most sterilization programs were phased out by 1963. Few states were forcing sterilization practices in regards to eugenics and most laws were revised to remove eugenics language. Today compulsory sterilization is only allowed in Virginia for incompetent patients if it is deemed medically necessary for the patient’s health. In 1978, Federal Sterilization Regulations were created that were meant to prevent compulsory sterilization for eugenics reasons. However, the desire to weed out less desirable members of society through sterilization still continues. In 2013, it was found that 148 female prisoners were forcibly sterilized in California. In 2014, California passed a law that said sterilization in correctional facilities can only be performed if it is necessary for the health of the patient.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Channel – Eugenics

Facing History – The Origins of Eugenics

Science Direct – Compulsory Sterilization

New Yorker – The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement

PBS – Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States

DW – Remembering the Victims of Nazi Eugenics

Georgetown Library – Eugenical Sterilization in the United States

Timeline – How the Supreme Court allowed forced sterilization of women for 50 years

Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality – Buck v. Bell, American Eugenics, and the Bad Man Test

Talk Poverty – The U.S. Is Still Forcibly Sterilizing Prisoners

Reuters – California Governor Signs Inmate Sterilization Ban

Washington Post – Eugenics Is Trending. That’s A Problem

Nature – Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs

Our Body Selves – The History of Forced Sterilization in the United States