60 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 30 (1985)
Three Generations, No Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell

handle is hein.journals/nylr60 and id is 44 raw text is: THREE GENERATIONS, NO IMBECILES: NEW
LIGHT ON BUCK v. BELL
PAUL A. LOMBARDO*
With the proclamation that Three generations of imbeciles are enough Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes concluded his Supreme Court opinion in the 1927 case of Buck v.
Bell, which upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia law permitting eugenical steriliza-
tion of the mentally ill Most commentators have explained Holmes's harsh opinion as
a reflection of the popularity of the eugenics movement. In an original interpretation
of the Buck case, Dr. Lombardo demonstrates that the lawsuit was a carefully designed
test of the Virginia law, brought by the statute's proponents as the final step to ensure
the success of a eugenical sterilization program. Charting the genesis of the law,
Lombardo reveals that it originated as a means of vindicating the moralism and pri-
vate prejudices of three professional and political colleagues One was the state legisla-
tor who drafted the statute and eventually defended it in court. Another was the doctor
whose fervent belief that sterilization could rid society of undesriables spurred the law's
enactment The third was the attorney who represented Carrie Buck That attorney,
Dr. Lombardo contends, colluded with his purported adversaries in the Buck lawsuit
by deliberately neglecting to develop the factual record in the case, and consequently
failing to mount a proper challenge to the statute. Dr. Lombardo concludes that Car-
rie, her mother and her daughter were not imbeciles, but rather, the unfortunate vic-
tims of an elaborate legislative and judicial campaign that resulted in the legally
sanctioned sterilization of Carrie and thousands of other American.
INTRODUCTION
During his long and highly acclaimed career, Justice Oliver Wendell
Holmes wrote few lines more memorable than the rhetorical coda to
Buck v. Bell.' That case tested the validity of a Virginia law allowing
eugenical sterilization of the mentally 112 and posed Carrie Buck against
the physician who wished to use her as the law's first subject. Speaking
for the Taft Court, Justice Holmes delivered the now infamous epigram
describing Carrie Buck, her mother, and her daughter: Three genera-
tions of imbeciles are enough.'3 With histrionic flair, Justice Holmes
* Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, University of Virginia. A.B., 1971,
Rockhurst College; M.A., 1975, Loyola University of Chicago; Ph.D., 1982, University of
Virginia.
1 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
2 Act of Mar. 20, 1924, ch. 394, 1924 Va. Acts 569, repealed by Act of Apr. 2, 1974, ch.
296, 1974 Va. Acts 445. The 1924 Act provided for sexual sterilization of any state hospital
inmate who was insane, idiotic, imbecile, feeble-minded or epileptic, and by the laws of hered-
ity... the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring likewise afflicted ....
Act of Mar. 20, 1924, ch. 394, 1924 Va. Acts 569, 570.
Eugenical theory holds generally that many of society's ills, including crime, poverty, and
mental deficiency, are largely caused by hereditary defects rather than environmental factors.
3 274 U.S. at 207.
30

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