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Buck v. Bell: 1927

Supreme Court Reviews Case

In the brief he submitted to the Supreme Court, Whitehead claimed Fourteenth Amendment protection of a person's "full bodily integrity." He also predicated the "worst kind of tyranny" if there were no "limits of the power of the state (which, in the end, is nothing more than the faction in control of the government) to rid itself of those citizens deemed undesirable." Strode, in contrast, likened compulsory sterilization to compulsory vaccination.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the nearly unanimous opinion on May 2, 1927:

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 such lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be much 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 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.

Only Justice Pierce Butler dissented. Carrie Buck was sterilized by Dr. Bell on October 19, 1927. Shortly thereafter, she was paroled from the Virginia colony. She married twice: William Davis Eagle in 1932 and, after his death, Charlie Detamore. The letters she wrote to the Virginia colony seeking custody of her mother, as well as the recollections of her own minister, neighbors and health care providers, belie the notion that Carrie Buck was "feebleminded" or retarded.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Buck v. Bell: 1927 - Virginia Approaches Its Courts With A "solution", Carrie Buck As A Test Case, Supreme Court Reviews Case