soldier with rifle american civil warThe Supreme Court
Wall Of Shame

Buck v. Bell
274 U.S. 200 (1927)



Carrie Buck, petitioner, appeals from an order of the Virginia Circuit Court requiring the state to perform the operation of salpingectomy upon her, for the purpose of making her sterile. Ms. Buck is eighteen, an acknowledged “feeble-minded” person, the daughter of a feeble-minded person, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded person.

On the ground that “heredity plays an important part in the transmission of  imbecility” the State of Virginia (following California’s lead) has passed a statute that authorizes the superintendent of certain institutions to order persons, like Ms. Buck, to be sterilized. Ms. Buck challenges the right of the State to sterilize her, on the ground that in no circumstances can such an order be justified. In a single little paragraph, a giant of the law, the great and honorable Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, rejects Ms. Buck’s contention out of hand.


Mr.Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the opinion of the court.

“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 let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”


Mr. Justice Butler dissents without opinion.

Joe Ryan comments:

From 1909 to 1979, California sterilized more than 20,000 helpless victims of Justice Holmes’ reasoning. Fifteen States followed California’s lead; as did the State of Germany after Hitler assumed power. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote: “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception of citizenship are noticeable. Of course it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.” This “law” sanctioned by Holmes was, in fact, a state-sponsored means of eradicating an entire class of people which Hitler adopted for his peculiar use in eradicating Jews, Gypsies, and everyone else he didn’t want alive on earth. In 2003, California’s Legislature “apologized” to victims for the State’s conduct, but the State continued to sterilize women under its control until 2013. The shade between the German State of 1933 and ours is thin indeed.

Joe Ryan