The Taft Court (1921–30)

Criminal Justice and Procedure

In what case did the Taft Court uphold the sterilization of a woman?

The Taft Court upheld the sterilization of an eighteen-year-old woman named Carrie Buck in the decision Buck v. Bell (1927). Virginia had passed a law in 1924 that provided that “mental defectives” could be sterilized for the betterment of society. Buck, who was allegedly raped, had a low IQ and a mother who was also institutionalized at the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. The colony petitioned to perform a salpingectomy (removal of at least one of the fallopian tubes) on Buck, which would make her sterile.

The Court ruled 8–1 in favor of the colony officials in an opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” he wrote, adding that the law was justified because it helped society control offspring likely to commit crimes or be dependent upon others.

Justice Pierce Butler was the Court’s lone dissenter but he did not write an opinion explaining his opposition.


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