Carrie Buck’s letters, and badly written narratives about them

Carrie Buck was the institutionalized plaintiff of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. In a case rigged against her, the Supreme Court upheld a 1924 sterilization law. The Virginia institution sterilized her, then later “paroled” her: they sent her to do poorly-paid housework for local families. For any arbitrary reason, the Colony could re-confine her. She repeatedly pressed for a full discharge, and eventually won it. These facts are not in dispute.

Dr. Paul A. Lombardo, an academic scholar on Buck v. Bell, writes about these facts in a recent Undark Magazine article. He presents some letters written by Buck during her “parole” and post-discharge period as an untold story. It is a disingenuous claim to say he is presenting a new angle on an untold story.

Buck’s story has been told many, many times, by journalists, historians, a film in 1994, and an upcoming film starring Dakota Johnson. And her letters are not undiscovered, her thoughts not wholly unknown: The letters have been around for years, in the state library of Virginia, and excerpted in journal articles and books. Yet he writes in the article: “We also now know that Buck left her own record.” Buck’s story is albeit being told in flawed ways:  the narrative of her being “mentally normal” as the reason it was wrong to sterilize her. It is a narrative that journalists and scholars have done little to correct, including Lombardo. In fact, he uses these letters to promote that narrative in his article.

And it is true that they have not been publicized in Internet articles such as Lombardo’s (that I could find). But to say that Buck’s thoughts have never been known before, to say that we just now know “Buck left her own record,” is to say that we did not know before that Buck had agency.  To use Buck’s letters to promote a narrative that fails to acknowledge that eugenicists used disability, real or not, as a reason to sterilize people – is also wrong. To use Buck’s letters as proof of “not disabled” meaning she shouldn’t have been sterilized is wrong. (Also, disabled people are often denied agency in a number of ways.)

It is not only insulting to disabled people, but it is also insulting to Carrie Buck and what she went through. Carrie Buck was sterilized under a government law by people who used public fear of disability and “defectiveness” to do it. It was not for people to claim “not disabled” was the one quality that made her sterilization wrong. It was not for people to deny her agency.

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After Bell sterilized Carrie Buck, he was told “a hundred years from now… your descendants may well be proud.”

And other reasons Adam Cohen is wrong about eugenics and gene editing

On February 14, 2017, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Academy of Medicine (NAM) released a report entitled “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance.” The report proclaimed that, with caution, limited clinical tests of genome editing should go forward. But human genome editing is controversial. Many international reports and laws support bans or limitations on genome editing.

The report departs from these internationally accepted ethics and laws, wrote the Center for Genetics and Society. (CGS). CGS is a science and bioethics group advocating “responsible uses and effective social governance” of human genetics. CGS put out official comments and a blog post on the report.  CGS also mentions the possibility of eugenics.

On March 17, 2017, Adam Cohen – author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck – began an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with the words:

We entered a new phase as a species when Chinese scientists altered a human embryo to remove a potentially fatal blood disorder — not only from the baby, but all of its descendants…Last month, the scientific establishment weighed in. A National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine joint committee endorsed embryo editing aimed at genes that cause serious diseases when there is “no reasonable alternative.” …But the committee was also right to support limited embryo editing. This time around, eugenics could be a force for good.

He concludes the op-ed with:

Again, that need not be a bad thing. Twentieth century eugenics has rightly been called a “war on the weak” — its goal was to stop people with conditions like Huntington’s disease from reproducing. Twenty-first century eugenics can enable people with the Huntington’s gene to have children without it. The new eugenics can be a war for the weak.

Cohen’s op-ed, as disability rights journalist David Perry notes, “seems to miss the lessons of the history he synthesizes in his book… Any eugenic gene editing process that is constructed in our culture will reflect the ableist reality in which they are created.”

Further, Cohen misses several other points.

Eugenics was not just state-sanctioned sterilization. Eugenics was not just about preventing “the unfit” from having children. It was, and is, also about immigration, “racial purity,” and eliminating the “mentally defective” population through any means – whether by institutionalizing people judged as such, sterilizing them, preventing their marriage, or in the case of the Nazis, also murdering them.  Eugenicists were not worried about the people with any kinds of hereditary conditions, real or perceived, and far more keen on eliminating the “threat” to the sanctity of American society and economics.

Cohen asks the question if eugenics can be used for good. A colleague told Dr. John H. Bell after Bell sterilized Carrie Buck, “a hundred years from now you will still have a place in this history of which your descendants may well be proud.” Eugenicists believed they had the superior knowledge to know what was best for society, doing public good, based on pseudoscience and their own intensely biased beliefs. They believed future generations would be proud of their work – future generations that contained no “mental defectives,” generations that had been altered by them.

Cohen said “yes” in answer to his question, that the new eugenics can be for people with genetic conditions – that eugenics can be used for good. But he acknowledges that future generations would be permanently altered.

There is no such thing as good eugenics, and Cohen misses that point by a wide mark.

The Real Tragedy of Eugenics and a Primer on Buck v. Bell

Many of the victims were, like Carrie [Buck], perfectly normal both mentally and physically–and they desperately wanted to have children.

-Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

The tragedy of eugenics is not that it happened to ostensibly non-disabled people. The tragedy of eugenics is that it happened at all. The tragedy of eugenics is that people used the prospect of disability to justify it. The tragedy of eugenics is that anyone, disabled or not, lost their right to choose if they wanted children. They used the prospect of disability to justify sterilizing anyone they saw fit – disabled people, people of color, sex workers, women, low-income people, or a combination of those, for the most part.

Cohen is not alone in asserting Carrie Buck, the subject of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, was mentally “normal.” Journalist Harry Bruinius discusses it in his book Better for all the World. Paul Lombardo has many words to say about Carrie Buck’s normality as well as that of her daughter Vivian’s in his book Three Generations, No Imbeciles. The Sterilization of Carrie Buck  by J. David Smith and K. Ray Nelson talks about Carrie Buck’s family being actually normal.

Cohen is not alone in therefore implying that there was a correctly targeted group. That Carrie Buck’s sterilization was wrong because she was “normal” and should never have been in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. In one regard, he is correct. Carrie Buck should never have been in that institution. Neither should anyone else have been.

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Carrie Buck was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1906. Eugenics took hold as Carrie grew up. Her father Frank was dead, or had simply left – no one knew. Her mother Emma took to the streets and got put on charity lists to try and take care of her children. Emma may have had substance abuse issues with drugs. Emma sometimes went to having sex with different men to try and make ends meet. She had more children. A family called the Dobbses took Carrie from Emma when Carrie was three or four. Emma Buck eventually was put in the Virginia Colony. When Carrie was seventeen, the Dobbses’ nephew Clarence raped her. A pregnancy resulted. The Dobbses wanted to avoid scandal. They packed her off to the Virginia Colony as “feebleminded” after she gave birth to a girl, Vivian. Facts of the case were not observed. 

The superintendent chose Carrie Buck for a test case of Virginia’s new sterilization law. Carrie went before the board of the institution. They voted to sterilize her. Her appointed guardian filed an orchestrated appeal. It was not really on her behalf. The appeal traveled through all the court systems until it reached the Supreme Court.

Buck v. Bell was a devastating decision by the Supreme Court. The 8-1 decision – the only dissenting member Justice Pierce Butler – said that it was legal to sterilize Carrie Buck, a patient at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. They said it was legal to sterilize people, mostly those in institutions, without their consent. It upheld the Virginia law that had passed three years earlier. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote this infamous statement in the opinion: 

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Buck v. Bell was an injustice done to Carrie Buck. It would have been if it were proven today she actually had an intellectual or developmental disability. It was an injustice to the tens of thousands of people, mostly in institutions, who came after her. It was an injustice to the women in the California prisons who underwent forced sterilization as recently as 2014, and to the women who went before a Tennessee district court prosecutor who forced plea deals involving sterilization. Buck v. Bell has never been overturned in its entirety, permitting legal loopholes. People are still being sterilized today, in the United States and elsewhere.  It is not considered a priority to overturn Buck v. Bell in its entirety. State eugenics laws were not overturned until the 1970s and 80s.

Buck v. Bell reached beyond the borders of the United States. The Nazi Party cited it as justification for some of their war crimes. They drew upon American eugenic ideals. United States officials acted as the primary agents in prosecuting Nazi officials, doctors, and others. Despite its association with Nazism, eugenics is not dead. Nor is its height and prominence a distant memory.

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I encourage you to read the following if you have access to them. Sources to think about, and sometimes critique:

Books that Cost

  • The Nazi Connection by Stefan Kühl
  • Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity by Harry Bruinius
  • In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel Kevles
  • The Sterilization of Carrie Buck by J. David Smith and K. Ray Nelson
  • Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
  • Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul Lombardo
  • War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Quest to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black
  • A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, editor Paul Lombardo
  • Fit to be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 by Rebecca Kluchin
  • Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America by Steven Selden

Physical Archives

  • The Carrie Buck archives at the State Library of Virginia (Richmond)

Resources and Articles that are Online/Free