Involuntary Sterilization Of Americans With Disability (Not Even Houdini Could Hide My Wheelchair)

In the early 1900s, American biologists Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin were leaders of a eugenics movement that advocated involuntary sterilization of people with disability. Eugenics, a Greek term meaning “good birth”, was first used in 1883 by the English scientist Sir Francis Galton. Eugenics attempts to “improve” society through selective reproduction that increases children born to “desirable” people (positive eugenics) and prevents births considered burdensome to society (negative eugenics).

In 1907, Indiana passed the first American state law to permit involuntary sterilization and, by 1914, twelve states enacted sterilization laws. Virginia’s 1924 Model Eugenical Sterilization Act revised early state statutes. This Act proposed the sterilization of “defective persons” whose children would be “a menace to society.” After Virginia had passed the Sterilization Act, a majority of American states permitted involuntary sterilization. In 1927, eight years before Germany's Nuremberg Laws enacted forced sterilization, the United States Supreme Court ruled for the involuntary sterilization of a young woman from Virginia named Carrie Buck.

Harry Laughlin’s 1914 publication of the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law was the basis for Virginia’s Sterilization Act. Laughlin advocated the involuntary sterilization of people who are” diseased…and dependent”. Laughlin also advocated the involuntary sterilization of “orphans… the homeless and paupers.” In 1936, Harry Laughlin was honored by the University of Heidelberg for his efforts to achieve a “science of racial cleansing”.

The decision to sterilize Carrie Buck was the first involuntary sterilization ordered under Virginia’s 1924 Sterilization Act. This law permitted involuntary sterilization if “the welfare of society may be promoted… by the sterilization of mental defectives”. In order to confirm the constitutionality of the new law, Carrie Buck’s sterilization had been challenged in circuit court and Virginia’s State Court of Appeals. When Carrie Buck’s case reached the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ruled that: “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.”

Information that suggests a conspiracy to influence the trial's outcome reinforces that shocking nature of the Court's 8-1 vote in Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck’s attorney, Aubrey Strode, strongly supported eugenics, and Court records reflect his position. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was also a public advocate of eugenics. There is evidence to suggest that Carrie Buck’s legal representation may have been a matter of form, entirely without substance.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell resulted in the subsequent sterilization of approximately 8,300 people who lived in Virginia. However, the implications of this decision reached far beyond Virginia. It legitimized the theory of eugenics and the process of involuntary sterilization. Rates of sterilization soared throughout the country, reaching a peak during the 1950′s. Despite a subsequent decline, involuntary sterilization remained legal in some states during the 1970′s. Virginia, in 1979, appears to be the last American state to revoke laws that support involuntary sterilization. The decision in Buck v. Bell is widely condemned, but it has never been formally overruled.

Carrie Buck was the daughter of Emma Buck, a poor, unmarried woman with three children. Carrie Buck was herself an impoverished, unmarried teenage mother. Carrie Buck’s personal history is relevant because the laws that enforced sterilization focused upon individuals who were considered socially undesirable. People with disabilities were one such group. There were others. The Buck family lived during a period that viewed poverty and sexual activity by unmarried women as contemptible.

Later information suggests that the conception of Carrie Buck’s child followed her rape by a member of her foster family and was a motive for her commitment to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Following protracted litigation, Carrie Buck was surgically sterilized by the institution's superintendent, Dr. John Bell. Carrie Buck’s sterilization complied with the new Sterilization Act because she was considered to be “a probable parent of a socially defective child”. Significantly, Carrie Buck’s “defective” daughter, Vivian, grew up to do well in school. In first grade, Vivian Buck was an honor roll student who received the grade of  “A” in deportment.

When I consider the realities of my disability, I recognize my need for more---and different--- resources than used by most people of my age.I sense a careful, uncomfortable balance between my abilities and the resources— material, economic and interpersonal—that compensate for my disability. I understand that the progressive nature of my medical illness and disability make this balance unstable. I am one of the people whom the renowned Justice Holmes considered “manifestly unfit” and a burden on society. My disproportionate use of resources announces itself loudly and publicly. Not even Houdini could hide my wheelchair. Despite the certain protection of modern American law and my husband's absolute, personal protection, I feel vulnerable.


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