Law School Case Brief
Buck v. Bell - 274 U.S. 200, 47 S. Ct. 584 (1927)
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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Carrie Buck was a feeble minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony in due form. She was the daughter of a feeble minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble minded child. An Act of Virginia, approved March 20, 1924, stipulated that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives, under careful safeguard, and that the sterilization may be effected in males by vasectomy and in females by salpingectomy, without serious pain or substantial danger to life. Also, the Act stipulated that the Commonwealth was supporting in various institutions many defective persons who if discharged would become a menace but if incapable of procreating might be discharged with safety and become self-supporting with benefit to themselves and to society. In 1924, Bell, the superintendent of the state institution, sought an order for the sterilization by salpingectomy of Buck. After a hearing, the state trial court ordered that Buck be sterilized. The state supreme court affirmed the sterilization order, and Buck sought review, contending that the operation of salpingectomy, as provided for in the Act, was illegal in that it violated her constitutional right of bodily integrity and was therefore repugnant to the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Was the Act of Virginia, which stipulated that sterilization may be effected on mental defectives, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment?
The Court affirmed the state supreme court's judgment. The hearing procedure provided before sterilization of those deemed to be feeble minded satisfied due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the fact that the procedure was limited to people housed in state institutions did not deny the inmates equal protection. The Court further held that the state could properly sterilize those determined to be feeble minded to prevent the birth of feeble minded children who might lead lives of crime or indigency. According to the Court, the fact that the sterilization order procedure only applied to inmates in state facilities and not to the general public did not deprive the inmates of equal protection.
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