Jennifer K. Wagner, J.D., Ph.D., is a solo-practicing attorney in State College, PA and a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Integration of Genetic Healthcare Technologies.
Almost a year ago, North Carolina Governor Bev Purdue set up a Task Force charged with determining how the state should compensate victims of its eugenics program. The Final Report (pdf) by that Task Force was submitted to the Governor on January 27, 2012. If the state legislature takes action to implement the Task Force’s recommendations, North Carolina will become the first state (of the 32 states that had eugenics programs) to compensate the victims of its involuntary sterilization program.
So wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Buck v. Bell, a 1927 Supreme court case upholding a Virginia law that authorized the state to surgically sterilize certain “mental defectives” without their consent. The fascinating and disturbing history of the case is covered in a recent USA Today article.
Carrie Buck was a patient in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded. Upon a finding that she was “the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health, and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,” the Court upheld her involuntary tubal ligation. The Court infamously justified its decision as follows:
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 lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such 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 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.