“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Few lines from Supreme Court opinions are as memorable as this declaration by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the landmark 1927 case Buck v. Bell. The ruling allowed states to forcibly sterilize residents in order to prevent “feebleminded and socially inadequate” people from having children. It is the only time the Supreme Court endorsed surgery as a tool of government policy. Paul Lombardo’s startling narrative exposes the Buck case’s fraudulent roots.
In 1924 Carrie Buck—involuntarily institutionalized by the State of Virginia after she was raped and impregnated—challenged the state’s plan to sterilize her. Having already judged her mother and daughter mentally deficient, Virginia wanted to make Buck the first person sterilized under a new law designed to prevent hereditarily “defective” people from reproducing. Lombardo’s more than twenty-five years of research and his own interview with Buck before she died demonstrate conclusively that she was destined to lose the case before it had even begun. Neither Carrie Buck nor her mother and daughter were the “imbeciles” condemned in the Holmes opinion. Her lawyer—a founder of the institution where she was held—never challenged Virginia’s arguments and called no witnesses on Buck’s behalf. And judges who heard her case, from state courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court, sympathized with the eugenics movement. Virginia had Carrie Buck sterilized shortly after the 1927 decision.
Though Buck set the stage for more than sixty thousand involuntary sterilizations in the United States and was cited at the Nuremberg trials in defense of Nazi sterilization experiments, it has never been overturned. Three Generations, No Imbeciles tracks the notorious case through its history, revealing that it remains a potent symbol of government control of reproduction and a troubling precedent for the human genome era.
From Publishers Weekly
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Law professor and historian Paul Lombardo does a superb job of revealing, for the first time, all the facts in the infamous Buck v. Bell case of the 1920s, the Supreme Court decision ratifying Virginia’s compulsory sterilization of ‘feebleminded’ people.
(Publishers Weekly (starred review))
Highly recommended for academic, public, and law libraries.
(Philip Y. Blue Criminal Law Library Blog)
An engrossing look at a shameful case.
Lombardo tells a compelling and heavily documented story of injustice to society’s less fortunate citizens. His sympathy for the abused is evident, but that does not turn Three Generations, No Imbeciles into a polemic… Armed with knowledge from this excellent book, we can hope we never return to the mistakes of our past.
(Internet Review of Books)
The book is lucidly written, well researched, thorough, and provocative… Three Generations, No Imbeciles is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the historical context of Buck v. Bell and its implications for ethics, law and public policy.
(New England Journal of Medicine)
Lombardo reminds us that the same incentives to improve public health and lower tax burdens exist today.
(Damon W. Root Reason)
A sad and fascinating book… With his legal and historical background, Lombardo is particularly suited to give us a book that explains a surprisingly ignored injustice, its antecedents and consequences, and helps us to think about the ongoing struggle to find a health balance between privacy and government power.
(Stephen Murdoch History News Network)
This book is a legal and historical masterpiece, combining meticulous ethical analysis with a liveliness that belies its scholarly roots and exhaustive footnotes and research.
(Michael B. Blank PsycCRITIQUES)
Compelling and well-researched… Three Generations, No Imbeciles gives Carrie Buck’s long-untold story the attention it deserves.
(Harvard Law Review)
From the Back Cover
Winner, Georgia Author of the Year Award for Creative Nonfiction History
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Few lines from Supreme Court opinions are as memorable as this declaration by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the landmark 1927 case Buck v. Bell. The ruling allowed states to forcibly sterilize residents to prevent “feebleminded and socially inadequate” people from having children. Paul Lombardo’s startling narrative exposes the fraudulent roots of this notorious case.
“Lucidly written, well researched, thorough, and provocative… A must read for anyone who wants to understand the historical context of Buck v. Bell and its implications for ethics, law and public policy.”— New England Journal of Medicine
“The struggle for justice goes on. Bioethicists typically ask ‘ought’ questions; but not all follow up with activism. More bioethicists should accept the social activist role. Paul Lombardo demonstrates exactly how it can be done.”— American Journal of Bioethics
“Meticulously researched… As Lombardo conclusively demonstrates, those who sought to have Buck sterilized did not let the facts get in the way of the story the law required them to tell.”— Commonweal
“Heart-breaking and riveting… There is likely to be no better account of Buck v. Bell than Lombardo’s book.”— Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
“A legal and historical masterpiece, combining meticulous ethical analysis with a liveliness that belies its scholarly roots and exhaustive footnotes and research.”— PsycCRITIQUES
Paul A. Lombardo is a professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law.
About the Author
Paul A. Lombardo is a professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law. He has played a key role, as both a historian and a lawyer, in the movement to solicit state apologies and legislative denunciations of past eugenics laws.
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