Attorney, journalist, and bestselling author Cohen (Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America, 2009, etc.) revisits an ugly chapter in American history: the 1920s mania for eugenics.
Among “the most brutal aphorisms in American jurisprudence,” Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1927 pronouncement in Buck v. Bell—“Three generations of imbeciles are enough”—marked the high point of a shameful enthusiasm among the social elite for ridding the species of so-called mental defectives. With the nation anxious about changes wrought by unprecedented immigration, industrialization, and urbanization, and with marriage laws ineffective and segregation and warehousing of defectives too expensive and castration too barbaric, eugenics enthusiasts turned to mass sterilization as the solution to prevent the feebleminded from reproducing. The movement attracted its share of crackpots, racists, and conservatives intent on preserving an Anglo-Saxon heritage, but a shocking gallery of the very best people—professionals, intellectuals, feminists, and progressives—formed the vanguard. From this class came the principal players in Carrie Buck’s case: the physician/supervisor of Virginia’s Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, the drafter of the state’s sterilization law who defended it in the Supreme Court, the national scientific expert who affirmed its utility, and the celebrated justice who upheld its constitutionality. The stories of these four men and that of Carrie herself—a teenage girl neither mentally nor morally deficient, as her caretakers charged, and never informed of the purpose and effect the operation Virginia demanded—form the spine of Cohen’s compelling narrative. Through them, he also tells a larger story of the weak science underlying the eugenics cause and the outrageous betrayal of the defenseless by some of the country’s best minds. Carrie Buck died in 1983. The 8-1 decision, joined by the likes of Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Louis Brandeis, has never been overruled.
A shocking tale about science and law gone horribly wrong, an almost forgotten case that deserves to be ranked with Dred Scott, Plessy, and Korematsu as among the Supreme Court’s worst decisions.