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Who Is Carrie Buck?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Carrie Buck (1906-1983) is a woman who is most well-known for the role she played in the American eugenics movement. She was the victim of a 1924 law in Virginia which mandated sterilization for the so-called feeble-minded, despite challenging the law in court. In retrospect, the treatment of Buck has been widely condemned, along with the treatment of numerous other institutionalized patients who were sterilized without consent, and sometimes without their knowledge.

Carrie was born to Emma Buck, a women who was apparently quite poor, and possibly sexually promiscuous. Carrie was taken from her mother after birth and put into the care of foster parents, doing quite well in school before being pulled out to work around the home. At 17, Buck became pregnant, and her foster parents committed her to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. When her baby, Vivian, was born, her foster parents took charge of the baby and Carrie remained in the institution.

The head of the institution filed a request to be allowed to sterilize Carrie Buck, arguing that she was “a threat to the gene pool.” In 1927, Carrie sued the institution in the court case of Buck vs. Bell, and the Supreme Court upheld the 1924 sterilization law. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority opinion, which included the famous line “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” to justify the sterilization of Buck, her mother, and her sisters. Only one justice dissented with the decision.

As it turns out, Carrie Buck wasn't feeble-minded by any stretch of the imagination. She appears to have been a perfectly normal, healthy young woman; the only condition she suffered from was poverty. Her pregnancy was later revealed to be the result of a rape by one of her foster-relatives, and some historians have suggested that Carrie was committed and sterilized to cover up the family's shame. After being sterilized, Carrie Buck was released, and she went on to marry, later stating that she greatly regretted the fact that she could not have more children. Her daughter, Vivian, died at age eight.

The 1927 court decision legitimized compulsory sterilization laws in the United States, spurring many states to add such laws to the books. It wasn't until 1942 that the practice of compulsory sterilization began to decline, with most states repealing such laws in the 1960s. Virginia's 1924 law was not repealed until 1974.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Jun 03, 2014

@Markerrag -- history has shown that was exactly the case and we are better off as a nation for it. The U.S. Supreme Court was involved in the issue, but real changes started to occur after World War II when Americans started learning about the real horrors of the Nazi-imposed holocaust during the war. That mess got he American public riled up enough to demand change, and thank goodness.

By Markerrag — On Jun 02, 2014

Wow. I can't help but wonder if the nation's compulsory sterilization laws were viewed in a new light in the 1940s due to the atrocities the Nazis were inflicting on Jews, gypsies and other people they deemed "undesirable?"

It would be a shame if Americans didn't start to change their minds after learning what the Nazis were doing.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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