Book review: ‘Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck,’ by Adam Cohen
Special to the Daily
When one thinks of sociopolitical movements from history that were intended to champion racial superiority, what most likely comes to mind first, and rightfully so, are the efforts by Nazi Germany to advance a master race based on their twisted notions of human perfection. There can be no debating that the horrors of Hitler’s ideas were real and deeply felt, causing immeasurable suffering for millions. But author Adam Cohen, in his recent and weighty book “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck,” dares to mainstream the notion that America led the way in that push for a national purity standard.
The eugenics movement in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries was no mere fringe element, Cohen points out, but given how it has been ignored and downplayed in textbooks and classrooms, its true impact on the lives of tens of thousands has been overlooked. Cohen utilizes the monumental Supreme Court test case of Buck vs. Bell of 1927 to help frame the larger picture of just how influential and destructive eugenics was when applied to the lives of individuals deemed “feebleminded” by the state.
Reaction to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
Eugenics was viewed as an intellectual and practical reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution; it was a hands-on approach by the elite and powerful to weed out the bad apples of society, thereby clarifying the strain of genetic material within a population. Rooted in the widespread racism that remained after the Civil War, and embraced by the ruling classes of America, the push to purify the country’s population through eugenics was spread among several approaches to solving what was deemed a national problem.
First, immigration needed to be controlled, restricting the access of certain ethnic groups, including Italians, Jews and other non-white, non-Northern Europeans. If this sounds familiar to modern scenarios, it is, with Cohen repeatedly asserting that there is a presence of a eugenics element in today’s society. It has been well noted, and Cohen draws attention to it, as well, that many of the Jews who perished in Nazi Germany had attempted to flee to the United States but were denied entry, including, famously, Anne Frank and her family.
In addition to a focus on immigration, individuals determined to be feebleminded (a label that could be attached based on what were deemed “defective traits,” including epilepsy, a tendency toward crime, debauchery or poverty) were ordered locked away, where they could be kept segregated and, most importantly, unable to procreate.
The final, and most extreme, piece of the eugenics puzzle was enforced sterilizations. Cohen lays out the most pivotal aspects of the plan put forth by advocates of the eugenics sterilization movement, which came about after a very carefully orchestrated test case, which was the forced sterilization of young Carrie Buck. Her ultimate fate was the result of Virginia’s methodical consideration of legality of the application of sterilization. Virginia came relatively late to the eugenics movement, and it wanted a firm legal foundation to back any program that was put into place. Thus, because of four pivotal men in positions of power, Buck’s fate and that of thousands who followed the iconic and controversial ruling were decided.
Familiar names from the history books surface in Cohen’s investigation of Buck’s case. John D. Rockefeller, Alexander Graham Bell and Theodore Roosevelt all spoke in support of eugenics, and former U.S. President William Howard Taft served as chief justice on the Supreme Court that ruled in favor of the sterilization of Buck. The highly revered justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the ruling, famously saying, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
This proclamation was determined because Buck’s mother, Emma, left alone to raise several children when her husband passed, was determined feebleminded by the state, primarily due to her financial dependency. Carrie was sent to a foster family as a young girl, but the family relinquished her when she became pregnant at the age of 17, saying she was loose and immoral in her behavior, a sure sign of feeblemindedness.
The tragic backstory to Carrie’s fate, though, is that she had, in fact, been raped by a relation of her foster parents, and institutionalizing her was the surest way to avoid a scandal. With one strike against Carrie because of her mother’s determined mental state, Carrie had little chance when faced with a powerful group of men determined to make an example of her, her mother and her daughter, who was decided to be feebleminded while only a few months old.
Cohen breaks down the legal case against Carrie Buck piece by piece, and it is a fascinating, yet disturbing reading. It becomes very clear that Carrie Buck’s fate was decided long before her case reached the Supreme Court; even her own lawyer was a eugenics insider.
The picture Cohen paints is all the more powerful and shocking as he reveals how eugenics sterilizations are not as antiquated as one would think. The Supreme Court ruling has never been overturned and thus still stands. Oregon, for example, finally halted the practice in 1981, and in California, “nearly 150 female prisoners have been sterilized between 2006 and 2010.” Cohen’s book is an important read for today, as the world is facing a renewed challenge to the rights of those with less power. The U.S. Supreme Court, Cohen says, has to own its unfortunate history of having, at times, “sided with the strong as opposed to the vulnerable and weak.”
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