As I have observed in these pages before, the United States Supreme Court has a very uneven record on the issue of eugenics. Indeed, one of the justices we lawyers are taught in law school to revere without question, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was an uber-Darwinist and philosophical materialist who also happened to be, not coincidentally, a great admirer of the American eugenics project of the 1920’s. In the infamous case of Buck v. Bell the court considered a Virginia law authorizing the forced sterilization of mentally challenged people. The state proposed to use the law to sterilize Carrie Buck on the ground that she was feeble minded and thus a genetic threat to society. The court upheld the law, and Ms. Buck was in fact forcibly sterilized, as were tens of thousands of other people across the nation after Buck v. Bell was decided.
In his opinion upholding the law Holmes wrote:
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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
Famously, Holmes concluded his argument with the phrase: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Buck v. Bell has NEVER been overturned. It remains the law of the land in the United States of America. To be sure, forced sterilization of the mentally challenged is currently out of fashion among legislators and the last such procedure was performed in 1981. But what if eugenics were to make a legislative comeback, perhaps in response to a crime wave. Would the current United States Supreme Court follow Buck v. Bell? Yes, I am afraid it would if Ruth Bader Ginsburg is to be believed.
In a recent interview Ginsburg was asked what she thought of the lack of federal funding for abortions. She replied:
Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [She’s talking about Harris v. McRae, which upheld the Hyde Amendment which prohibits federal funding of abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.
Scary stuff that. Does anyone else get a chill down their spine when a high ranking official of their government starts talking about controlling the growth of “populations that we don’t want to have too many of”?