An Elite Faith

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

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, author of Buck v. Bell / Library of Congress
May 1, 2016

In 1927, American high society was swept up in a frantic religious mania. Leading politicians, intellectuals, philanthropists, educators, reporters, and scientists prophesied that the nation would be consumed by fire and brimstone in the form of "unfit" babies unless it offered up a sacrifice. The state of Virginia went before the U.S. Supreme Court, that temple of modernity, with an offering. Legendary progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes looked upon Carrie Buck, a 19-year-old imbecile with an imbecilic mother and imbecilic bastard infant, and embraced his role as Solomon. It was too late to split Ms. Buck’s baby in half, but the country could take a scalpel to Ms. Buck’s fallopian tubes. "Three generations of imbeciles are enough," Holmes wrote in Buck v. Bell, an 8-1 ruling that permitted the state to forcibly sterilize deficient citizens. Eugenicists cheered, Buck’s doctors operated, Moloch smiled.

Former New York Times editorial board member Adam Cohen recounts this ugly chapter in American history in Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Cohen proves himself a capable and comprehensive historian, documenting the pseudoscientific, bigoted, and fecundophobic tendencies of eugenics, a "secular religion" that inspired state and local governments to render more than 60,000 Americans impotent and infertile over a few decades. He offers a point-by-point refutation of twentieth century eugenics: how its proponents ginned up evidence through misapplied IQ tests and fudged statistics at the Eugenics Record Office; how their attempts to control "defective germplasm" were doomed to failure; how the entire ideology was fueled, at base, by class hatred.

Cohen convincingly shows that Buck’s attorney Irving Whitehead, a former board member of the mental institution attempting to sterilize her, rigged the case against his client. Whitehead bolstered the eugenicist argument with his cross examinations, failed to point out perjury by the doctors who declared Buck’s daughter imbecilic without examining her, buried evidence that Buck was of adequate intelligence, and turned constitutional arguments that brought down eugenic sterilization laws in other states into wet noodles.

The eugenicist’s effort to throw the case may have been unnecessary. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a true believer, his opinion dripping with hatred for the defective and their children without much semblance of legal scholarship at all. The opinion makes brief mention of Jacobson v. Massachusetts, a ruling that allowed states to enforce vaccination requirements, but offers no constitutional defense of coercive sterilization. Holmes instead based his decision on the social science of the day.

Cohen illuminates this history with primary documents, private letters, excerpts from eugenicist speeches, and the literature they circulated to lawmakers and newsmen. It is obvious he has done his homework.

With so much eugenic literature crammed between its covers, at times Imbeciles reads like a clown car of bad politics and bad science. Cohen tirelessly restates the facts of the case, beating the reader over the head with tidbits about Justice Holmes’ Boston Brahmin roots or some eugenicist’s mean-spirited prose or Carrie Buck’s sixth grade report card. Cohen’s repetitive rebuttals of the state’s case leaves the impression he thinks the reader feebleminded—that without his guidance we’d all be eugenicists. Did I mention the book is repetitive?

Cohen introduces his readers to the other eight Supreme Court justices with one biographical nugget to explain how the court came to an 8-1 decision. They vary in persuasiveness: Justice McReynolds was a bigot who was inclined to support eugenics, while others merely studied at colleges that employed eugenicists; Justice Butler, the lone dissenter, was Catholic.

Indeed, while elites converted en masse to eugenics, the one large constituency that opposed them at every turn was the Catholic Church, which countered that sterilization violated natural law. Cohen takes this opposition for granted, never exploring the meaning or roots of natural law and why it drove the church to quash sterilization in states such as Louisiana and New Jersey. Rather than confront sterilization on moral or philosophical grounds, Cohen bases his opposition on scientific grounds: Carrie Buck had a sixth grade education, sterilization alone couldn’t eliminate "feeblemindedness," Jews, it turns out, are pretty smart (they just didn’t know English when the eugenicists gave them IQ tests). It is convenient that eugenics makes for crappy science, but what if it had checked out? Would that make it any more moral?

Cohen’s least convincing argument against Whitehead’s representation is that he did not prepare a Brandeis brief arguing against sterilization. A Brandeis brief relies on scholarly evidence to argue for the validity of law rather than relying on the Constitution to determine constitutionality, and the author introduces a few dissenting scientists who took issue with eugenics. It never occurs to Cohen that the eugenicist’s case was a Brandeis brief, which is probably why Justice Louis Brandeis joined the majority in Buck v. Bell. Science had yet to fully refute eugenics.

One of the most interesting aspects of Buck v. Bell is that it has never been overturned, despite its reputation as one of the most unjust Supreme Court decisions ever. Oregon performed its last forced sterilization while Ronald Reagan was president and the California penal system was found to have sterilized unwitting female prisoners in the twenty-first century. The eugenic mindset lives on, but its supporters have taken a different route to achieve their ends. Rather than forcibly sterilize the poor and despondent or segregate them in expensive mental institutions during the duration of their fertility, today’s elites help poor women sterilize themselves voluntarily. They promote "nurturing" policies like free birth control as a way to spare taxpayers the costs of caring for more imbeciles.

Of course, yesterday’s eugenicists thought they were nurturing, too. Buck’s supervisor, Dr. Albert Priddy, campaigned for forced sterilization for decades before Virginia’s sterilization law was enacted. He handpicked Buck as a plaintiff to bring before the Supreme Court. He argued for her sterilization before lower courts, saying she was "unquestionably" better off sterilized. The state, he reasoned, could release her from the mental institution once she posed no threat to society of having children. "Every human being craves liberty," he testified.

Dr. Priddy died before the Supreme Court issued its ruling. He left behind no children.