Three Generations, No Imbeciles
Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell
Paul A. Lombardo
John Hopkins University Press, $29.95, 384 pp.


In Reckless Hands
Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics
Victoria F. Nourse
W. W. Norton, $24.95, 256 pp. 

In 1924, Carrie Buck was seventeen years old, unwed, and pregnant. The man who had raped and impregnated her was the nephew of her foster parents. Fearing the consequences of his actions, both for him and for them, Carrie’s foster parents sought to have her committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded. They testified in court that she had hallucinations, was given to moral delinquency, and had a bad temper. Their family physician testified that Carrie was “feeble-minded within the meaning of the law” and ought to be institutionalized. The court agreed, and Carrie became inmate number 1692 at the Virginia Colony.

Jack Skinner was nineteen years old when he was arrested for stealing chickens in 1926. By the time he was twenty-nine, Jack was serving his third stint in jail, this time for stealing $17 from a gas station. The robbery landed him in McAlester State Prison in Oklahoma.

Carrie Buck and Jack Skinner share the dubious distinction of having been locked up in states that permitted involuntary sterilization of marginalized citizens, and both were caught up in legal battles that led to landmark Supreme Court decisions—Buck v. Bell in Carrie Buck’s case and Skinner v. Oklahoma in Jack Skinner’s. The two volumes under review tell the remarkable stories of these cases.

The title of Paul Lombardo’s volume, Three Generations, No Imbeciles, is a reference to the infamous words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who wrote the majority opinion in Buck v. Bell. The Court upheld the Virginia statute that allowed the state to sterilize Carrie Buck. Carrie’s mother had also been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded, and Carrie’s daughter, Vivian, was deemed mentally deficient. Referring to this family history, Justice Holmes wrote, “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.... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Lombardo’s meticulously researched book demonstrates that almost every claim made about the Buck women in this case was false. Carrie was not institutionalized because she was “mentally defective,” Carrie’s daughter was not feeble-minded (in fact, she became an honor-roll student), and Carrie’s mother was simply poor and widowed. But Virginia law allowed the superintendent of certain state institutions to order the sterilization of patients only if they were “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity, imbecility, etc.” Thus the director of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded needed to claim that Carrie Buck’s condition was hereditary.

As Lombardo conclusively demonstrates, those who sought to have Buck sterilized did not let the facts get in the way of the story the law required them to tell. Only one of the eleven experts who testified that Carrie’s feeble-mindedness was hereditary had actually examined all three generations of Buck women—and that examination was very brief. Yet Carrie’s attorney, Irving Whitehead, did almost nothing to challenge the case against his client: he called no witnesses and introduced no testimony that would have contradicted the claim that Carrie was mentally deficient.

Of course, Whitehead’s failure to defend Carrie adequately could just have been the result of incompetence, but Lombardo’s research shows that “Whitehead failed because he intended to fail.” Whitehead had actually served on the Board of the Virginia Colony, he supported the eugenics movement, and he was a friend of the Colony’s director, the person who was seeking to have Carrie sterilized. Lombardo also found handwritten minutes of a meeting between Whitehead and the legal team representing the Colony. The record of this meeting indicates that the case was not just a tragedy, but also a “legal sham.”

The title of Victoria F. Nourse’s excellent book is also taken from a famous Supreme Court case. If Justice Holmes’s opinion in Buck was shameful, Justice William O. Douglas’s opinion in Skinner was prescient: “The power to sterilize, if exercised, may have subtle, far-reaching, and devastating effects. In evil or reckless hands, it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither and disappear.”

Nourse surveys the cultural landscape of the American eugenics movement, and shows how this movement campaigned for laws that allowed the involuntary sterilization of inmates in state institutions. In the case of the Oklahoma law, the Oklahoma Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act, the state could sterilize any “person who has been convicted two or more times to final judgment of the commission of crimes amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude.” (Oddly, the law exempted felons convicted of embezzlement.)

As Nourse makes clear, the decision in Buck v. Bell reinvigorated the eugenics movement in this country. In the two years following Buck, twelve states passed new sterilization laws; ten more states joined them in the two years after that. Although the Oklahoma law was not passed until 1935, it was clearly one of Buck’s offspring.

The long story leading to Skinner v. Oklahoma is a compelling one. It involves, among other episodes, two jailbreaks by inmates worried about being sterilized. One of the jailbreaks occurred while the jury was deciding the fate of Jack Skinner. Unlike Carrie Buck, though, Skinner had good legal counsel. Nourse quotes extensively from the transcript of the trial, which is riveting.

Although these two impressively researched books have much in common, they have different styles and purposes. Lombardo is passionate about documenting the travesty of justice in the Buck case; he wants to set the record straight about Carrie Buck’s mistreatment. By contrast, Nourse is mainly interested in exploring the way society is inclined to ground the social order in an idea of nature. She seeks to show why the Court in Skinner rejected the idea that crime can be found “inside the ‘bodies’ of men.”

The best section of each book is its final chapter, where the author reflects on the lessons of this particular case for contemporary society. Americans frequently speak with horror of Nazi eugenics, but few of us know the tragic history of our own eugenics movement, upon which the Nazi regime drew. Knowing this history is increasingly important as genetic screening becomes ubiquitous.

Consider, for example, the report issued in December by the President’s Council on Bioethics. Titled “The Changing Moral Focus of Newborn Screening,” the report notes that we are quickly moving away from the traditional norms that used to govern all genetic screening. In the past, we screened only for conditions that can be treated once they are discovered. The objective was direct benefit to the patient. Recently, however, states have begun testing for more and more conditions, including conditions that are not well understood and for which there are no good treatment options. Indeed, in 2005 the American College of Medical Genetics recommended that newborns should be screened for twenty-nine primary conditions and twenty-five secondary conditions. Nor is such screening confined to tests administered after birth. This past January, the BBC reported that University College London had used preimplantation genetic diagnosis to screen embryos for the BRCA1 gene, which predisposes women to breast cancer. According to the report, the first child to have “passed” this test had just been born. Embryos that carried the BRCA1 gene were discarded.

Many defend pre- and postnatal genetic screening by appealing to the moral importance of reducing suffering. But that was also the appeal of those who sought to have Carrie Buck and Jack Skinner sterilized. The social reformers who embraced the American eugenics movement in the early twentieth century were not monsters. They were bewitched by a messianic view of science and a utopian vision of human perfection. We are indebted to Lombardo and Nourse for showing us how easily one can be misled or even blinded by the promises of science, and how the law can be used to pursue a false model of human perfection. “May the lesson of Skinner,” Nourse writes, “be one in which scientists and all who revere science...remember how great an incentive politics has to manipulate science and how easily science may capitulate to the very politics it aims to conquer.” These closing words of In Reckless Hands are a fitting summary of both books.

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: View Contents
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