Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Event Start:
03/21/2017 5:30 PM
Event End:
03/21/2017 7:30 PM

When: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 from 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM
Where: Social Law Library, Boston

Adam Cohen

Senior writer for Time Magazine, former member of the New York Times Editorial Board,
and president of volume 100 of the Harvard Law Review

Lecture, Reception, Book Signing

Adam Cohen will discuss his provocative new book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1927 case of Buck v. Bell may not immediately spring to mind, but most lawyers will instantly recognize its most infamous dictum: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” That five-paragraph case is neither a highpoint in Supreme Court jurisprudence, nor does it do honor to its author, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

An eager eugenicist, Holmes later wrote to a friend in reference to the Buck decision, “Sooner or later one gets a chance to say what one thinks.”

Unfortunately, Holmes was not alone. He was joined in the ruling by seven of his colleagues, including Chief Justice Howard Taft, a former U.S. President, and Louis Brandeis, a progressive icon. Such disturbing views were merely reflective of a nation caught up in the mania of eugenics.

Even Congress was swept up in the craze when it enacted laws to prevent immigration by Italians, Jews, and other groups charged with being genetically inferior.

To enthusiasts, sterilization of the “feebleminded” would help uplift the human race. The problem was that Carrie Buck—and thousands of other poor unfortunates who were institutionalized and sterilized—were far from feebleminded. They were poor, uneducated, and luckless people (mostly women) who fell prey to a class-conscious diagnostic pyramid that featured “idiots” at the bottom, “imbeciles” in the middle, and higher functioning “morons” at the top.

It should not come as a surprise that the emerging Nazi Party in Germany used the American example for its own sterilization program. But it may come as a shock that Buck v. Bell is still on the books and cited as precedent as recently as 2001.

Adam Cohen tells an important multi-faceted story to those interested in Supreme Court jurisprudence, popular misconceptions about mental health, and politics.

The several biographical chapters on Oliver Wendell Holmes call into question the depth of his humanity, and whether he deserves the applause of history after all.

This program is made possible through the generosity of the William M. Wood Foundation, Bank of America, Trustee.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of the Library or the Wood Foundation. Registrants for this program acknowledge that during the program their photographic or videographic images may be incidentally taken; registrants agree that the submission of their registrations for this program constitutes their written consent to the Social Law Library’s use of any such image in print and online materials solely for promotion of the Library’s noncommercial CLE seminars and other educational events and activities.
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