Carrie Buck — victim and pawn

Today, October 19, is an extremely important day in the history of intellectual disabilities in this country. Today is the 85th anniversary of the sterilization of Carrie Buck, a young Virginia woman who was deemed mentally deficient and who had given birth to an illegitimate daughter.

Carrie Buck*

Carrie, who was 17, had been committed to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded after her foster parents learned she was pregnant. Seeking to avoid the shame of her condition, they sent her to the institution where her mother lived.

Officials at the Virginia Colony claimed that both Carrie and her mother Emma were mentally deficient and because of their feeblemindedness, were likely to be promiscuous. They claimed that Carrie was illegitimate and she was passing on the trait by having her own out-of-wedlock daughter. After little Vivian was born, she was taken from her mother and sent to live with Carrie’s former foster parents.

Carrie Buck was a test case

The Colony’s leaders decided that Carrie Buck’s case was a perfect one to test the legality of a new sterilization law that had been passed by the Virginia General Assembly.  Doctors at the colony had been secretly sterilizing residents before passage of the law and they reasoned that a court case would give them stronger legal backing. And so the infamous case of Buck v. Bell was established.

It wasn’t much of a fight. Carrie was represented by Irving Whitehead, a former board member of the colony. He put on no defense for his client. The case was prosecuted by Aubrey Strode, who wrote Virginia’s sterilization law.

During the trial, Carrie and her mother were described as part of the “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.”  Witnesses said Emma Buck had syphilis because she was a moral degenerate. One of Carrie’s teachers testified that she sent flirtatious notes to schoolboys, evidence that she was just as promiscuous as her mother. And Carrie’s baby was described by a nurse who examined her as having a look “that is not quite normal.”

U.S. Supreme Court weighs in

Predictably, the court gave the go-ahead for Carrie’s sterilization. But the case was appealed up the line to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In upholding the law in the majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the famous words:  “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

And so, on Oct. 19, 1927, Carrie Buck was sterilized at the Virginia Colony and later released. In the decades since, some hidden truths have emerged about her case.

The truth

First, Carrie was not illegitimate; her mother was legally married to Carrie’s father. Their marriage certificate was produced after the case concluded.

Second, neither Emma, Carrie nor Vivian was intellectually disabled. Carrie made satisfactory grades in school and Vivian made the honor roll. Emma was sent to the colony because she was a widow and had no one to take care of her.

And finally, Carrie became pregnant because she was raped by a member of her foster parents’ family.

A total of 33 states passed sterilization laws and because of the Supreme Court ruling on Buck v. Bell, more than 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized nationwide. Most of them were living in institutions.

After World War II, revelations of the Nazi racial purification programs emerged, as did news that they were based on eugenical sterilization laws drafted in the United States. As a result, enthusiasm for forced sterilization declined in the U.S. Although Buck v. Bell has never been overturned, most states have either repealed their sterilization laws or the practice has ceased.

*Photo courtesy of the Journal of Heredity