Buck v Bell Case

Buckv Bell Case

TheBuck v. Bell case involved a state imposed eugenic sterilization forindividuals deemed as feebleminded or generally inferior genetically.It was drafted by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and allowed forcompulsory sterilization of persons considered unfit such as theintellectually disabled. The main aim was to ensure the human racewas highly intellectual by eradicating defectives from within thegene pool. In many aspects, it was deemed as a means of ensuring ahealthy nation. This paper will give a clear definition of theeugenic movement and its purposeful intentions. By establishing aclear description of the same, the paper will relate it to the caseat hand. Whether the eugenic movement influenced the court’sdecision. The judge’s utterances will also be analyzed. It is alsovital to look at the current legal status on the particular issue.Whether genetics should be utilized in legal matters is an importantaspect that will be looked at within this paper.

Eugenicswere described as a set of practices or beliefs whose agenda is toimprove the generic qualities of the human population. It played aconsiderable role in the culture and history of the U.S. prior toWorld War II. Sir Francis Galton was the major contributor to theeugenics movement within the United States. All the ideas were basedon his research in which he asserted that social positions weredetermined by the generic makeup. For instance, upper classedindividuals had greater generic makeup as compared to the lowerclassed individuals. Eugenics description kept on changing, andduring the 19thand part of the 20thcenturies they were seen as a mechanism of improving as well aspreserving a dominant set within a population. However, it iscurrently associated with nativist and racist constituents.

Theeugenic movement played a considerable role in the case. The State’sColony for feebleminded and epileptics superintendent was directed toperform an operation on Carrie Buck with the aim of making hersterile. Carrie Buck was a feebleminded white female dedicated to theState Colony. She was a daughter to a feebleminded mother within thesame institution. She was also a mother to a feebleminded child. Hertrial came at a time when she was only 18 years of age. According toa Virginia Act that was passed around 1924, the well-being of apatient as well as the welfare of the society can be upheld duringparticular cases or times by sterilization of mental imperfects,under cautious safeguard. The sterilization could be instilled infemales by salpingectomy and in males by vasectomy without severepain or any considerable endangerment of life. If unable toprocreate then one can be discharged safely and let to beself-supporting within the society. As perceived through experience,heredity has a vital role to play in conveying imbecility, insanityamong others. The statute enacted that, superintendent of particularinstitutions such as the one above, could make decisions on whether apatient needed to be sexually sterilized. The operation could beperformed on the patient if he/she possessed hereditary kinds ofimbecility, insanity among others. As portrayed within the statue,the elements of eugenic movement are entailed within it. The eugenicmovement was clearly meant to eliminate individuals consideredintellectually limited or rather insane. The victim in this casepossessed the traits entailed within the eugenics and the judge’sdecisions are entirely based on this knowledge.

OliverWendell Holmes who was the judge in this case stated that it isbetter to prevent individuals who had the potential to be criminals,or starve due to their imbecility from existing. In this case, crimesand dependency levels could be lessened considerably. In fact, thejudge stated that three generations of imbeciles were enough,insinuating Buck’s case. This phrase was considered quite demeaningbut did not stop several states from adopting the same. The statementcan be considered quite unethical in the current world. Each andevery individual has a right to life and no particular judgment canbe passed basing on genetics. The judge’s statements are thereforequite unethical and uncalled for in the current context.

Yearsafter the case, the eugenics were no longer considered as asubstantial base of making judgments. Though the supreme courts wouldlater allow for involuntary sterilization of convicts, the entireconcept of eugenic sterilization was never revisited. As a matter offact, the Virginia General Assembly affirmed that sterilization lawswere instituted on faulty grounds using fake science. Statesexpressed regret of the function of eugenics movement and the damagesit brought about.

Inthe current United States justice system, sterilization ofindividuals based on eugenics is not entertained. Though the States’stance on sterilization defer slightly, no State condonessterilization based on genetics. Criminals found guilty of rape amongother related crimes can be involuntarily sterilized as a mode ofpunishment. Sterilization is seen as a mode of punishment and not asa tool of eliminating less intellectual individuals as portrayed inthe previous years.

Studyof genetics

Justicedecisions based on genetics especially hereditary is quite acontentious issue. However, the norm does not provide sufficientevidence to make a justifiable judgment. This is because, it is notalways the case for one to acquire same behaviors genetically. Forinstance, in Buck’s case, the judge considered her promiscuous.This is because she got a daughter out of wedlock just like her mum.This was considered hereditary as per the judge’s assumptions.Buck’s child Vivian was also considered to be feebleminded at onlyseven months of age. The judge based the assumptions on genetics i.e.she inherited the feeblemindedness from her mother who had inheritedfrom hers. This led to the remark “three generations of imbeciles”.However, as it was proven later, Vivian got straight “As” inconduct and was even honored for the same. On the other hand, Buckwas not promiscuous as previously deemed by the judge. Instead, shewas raped by her nephew leading to Vivian’s conception. It istherefore unfair to base judgment on genetics. The findings fromgenetics are not predictable enough to constitute a law entailingsterilization. It is not always the case that one inherits habitsfrom the preceding generations and even so, it is not a substantialground to base judgment. Additionally, genetics is mostly based onassumptions and not exact findings. Just like the judge assumed bothBuck and her mum were promiscuous hence made a misguided judgment,the same can be done in the current world whether unknowingly orknowingly. In that respect, genetics should not be utilized in anykind of legal decision.


Schmalleger, F. (2012). An integrative introduction (6th edition). Upper saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.