Summary of Buck v. Bell
Citation: 274 U.S. 200 (1927)
Relevant Facts: Carrie Buck, a resident of the State of Virginia, was a “feeble-minded" eighteen year old woman, whose mother was similarly feeble-minded. Ms. Buck, who was not married, was also the mother of a child likewise described by the State of Virginia as feeble-minded. In 1924, Virginia passed a statute authorizing the superintendents of institutions for certain classes of persons afflicted with hereditary conditions causing insanity of imbecility to order the sterilization of such persons. In order for the sterilization procedure to proceed, superintendents were required to present a petition to the board of directors for their institutions, notify the inmate and their guardian, and convene a hearing to present evidence for and against conducting the procedure. In this case, Dr. John Hendren Bell conducted the proceedings against Ms. Buck after her first physician passed away during the pendency of her case. Dr. Bell similarly pushed for sterilization under the statute, based on the same justification.
Issue: May a State, consistent with due process and equal protection, order the sterilization of a woman deemed mentally deficient by a state agency and review board?
Holding: Yes, states can require the sterilization of certain citizens without breaching constitutional rights. The statute in question provided adequate safeguards, and appropriate opportunity for notification and review, to comport with due process requirements.
Reasoning: Justice Holmes delivered a short majority opinion on behalf of the Court. He pointed out that the challenge to the law before the Court was properly considered a challenge to the law itself, not to compliance with the safeguards contained therein. He then argued that as the State can require sacrifices from citizens, up to and including their very lives, it is not unusual to require something less than the sacrifice of their life on behalf of the public good. Making a policy case, Justice Holmes opined that society would be better served by preventing reproduction by members of society most likely to produce progeny dependent on the government. The Court also made clear that the process for review of a sterilization order properly considered the rights of those whom the State targeted for such procedures. Finally, Justice Holmes dismissed concerns regarding equal protection. Here he reasoned that while not all citizens were equally subject to the potential to have their reproductive capacity forfeited, the State could reasonably direct its attention to those deemed unfit to reproduce and thereby conserve necessary resources for other prerogatives. Comparing forced sterilization to mandatory vaccination, Justice Holmes argued that both were for the overall benefit of society. Noting the sad history of Ms. Buck, her mother, and her child, Justice Holmes suggested that “[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough."
Dissent: Justice Butler dissented, but did not file a dissenting opinion.
Conclusion: While subsequently overturned as public opinion on eugenics changed, the Court here concluded that sterilization was not only a legitimate policy aim for the states, but entirely consistent with the Constitution.