The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Book - 2016
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ln 1927, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling so disturbing, ignorant, and cruel that it stands as one of the great injustices in American history. Here, bestselling author Adam Cohen exposes the court's decision to allow the sterilization of a young woman it wrongly thought to be "feebleminded" and to champion the mass eugenic sterilization of undesirables for the greater good of the country. The 8-1 ruling was signed by some of the most revered figures in American law--including Chief Justice William Howard Taft, and Louis Brandeis, a progressive icon. Oliver Wendell Holmes, considered by many the greatest Supreme Court justice in history, wrote the majority opinion, including the court's famous declaration "'Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Imbeciles is the shocking story of Buck v. Bell, a legal case that challenges our faith in American justice. This gripping courtroom drama pits a helpless young woman against powerful scientists, lawyers, and judges who believed that eugenic measures were necessary to save the nation from being "swamped with incompetence." At the center was Carrie Buck, born into a poor family in Charlottesville, Virginia, and taken in by a foster family, until she became pregnant out of wedlock. She was then declared "feebleminded" and shipped off to the Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. Buck v. Bell unfolded against the backdrop of a nation in the thrall of eugenics, which many Americans thought would uplift the human race. Congress embraced this fervor, enacting the first laws designed to prevent immigration by Italians, Jews, and other groups thought to be genetically inferior. Cohen shows how Buck arrived at the Colony at just the wrong time, when influential scientists and politicians were looking for a "test case." A cabal of powerful men lined up against her, and no one stood up for her--not even her lawyer, who, it is now clear, was in collusion with those who wanted her sterilized. In the end, Buck's case was heard by the Supreme Court, the institution established to ensure that justice would prevail. The court could have seen through the false claim that Buck was a threat to the gene pool, or it could have found that forced sterilization was a violation of her rights. Instead, Holmes, a scion of several prominent Boston Brahmin families, raised to believe in the superiority of his own bloodlines, wrote a vicious, haunting decision upholding Buck's sterilization and imploring the nation to sterilize many more. Before the madness ended, some sixty to seventy thousand Americans were sterilized. Cohen overturns cherished myths and demolishes lauded figures in relentless pursuit of the truth. With intellectual force and passion, Imbeciles is an ardent indictment of our champions of justice and our optimistic faith in progress.--Adapted from dust jacket.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Press, 2016
ISBN: 9780143109990
Characteristics: 402 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm


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Apr 14, 2017

As a history, Imbeciles deals primarily with the men who shaped Carrie’s fate, rather than with the woman herself. No doubt these prestigious and well-educated men left a larger record than a woman who had to leave school after the fifth grade, and who did not speak publicly about her situation until the 1980s. Cohen profiles the four men who played the largest roles in forming and deciding Carrie’s case: Dr. Albert Priddy, Harry Laughlin, Aubrey Strode, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Each man merits two chapters, a structure that bogs down the narrative and creates repetition as Cohen retreads portions of the timeline with each new figure.

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Oct 04, 2016

Cohen's book, for the most part, covers ground already well broken by Paul A. Lombardo's 2008 "Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck V. Bell". I did, however, find Cohen's two chapters on Justice Holmes interesting, especially Holmes' strong ties to four important Zionist figures of his day--Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, Walter Lippman, and Harold Laski. Though Cohen, understandably, makes no mention of Zionism and you'll have to turn elsewhere for that.

Apr 04, 2016

This is a supreme book in the realm of // Why we must ALWAYS question Authority - - and who the heck makes these people The Authority? \\. On CNN today, some news clown prattled on about why Trump's [whom I am no fan of, other than he's not on the Koch brothers payroll, ditto for Bernie] program to erase the national debt wouldn't work, yet she failed to mention that over $12 trillion is unaccounted for in DoD funds [from Clinton to Bush to Obama] and that makes up a large portion of the existing national debt [$19 trillion]. Massive exclusion of the facts, of the data, is the norm with all these so-called experts, who frequently are simply crony hires, crony appointments, and crony failures!
The imbeciles, of course, were those people sitting on the Supreme Court bench!
[An outstanding book also covering this topic is called: Three Generations, No Imbeciles, by Paul A. Lombardo.]


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Apr 14, 2017

In 1907, Indiana passed the first law authorizing a state to engage in eugenic sterilization, which permitted medical operations that cut off the reproductive abilities of those who were deemed “unfit” to procreate for a variety of reasons. However, it would take twenty years for the constitutionality of such laws to be sanctioned by the Supreme Court, and that case would come from Virginia, a relatively late adopter of eugenic sterilization. At the centre of that case was Carrie Buck, a girl of nineteen who had already borne one illegitimate child, and who was the daughter of a woman who had also been deemed “feebleminded.” In a nearly unanimous decision that has never been overturned, the Supreme Court ruled on Buck v. Bell in 1927, upholding eugenics laws broadly, and Carrie’s sterilization specifically. In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen investigates this miscarriage of justice, chronicling the rise of the eugenics movement in America, and how Carrie Buck was actively misrepresented for the sake of this cause.


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Apr 14, 2017

Whitehead’s representation of Carrie at the trial and on appeal was an extraordinary case of malfeasance. Not only did he violate well-established ethical rules about the duty of loyalty to a client…but his entire representation of Carrie, in a case of enormous importance to her, was a fraud.


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