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Three Generations, No Imbeciles

Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell

Paul A. Lombardo

updated edition
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This updated edition includes a new afterword that identifies the role the Buck story plays in the Supreme Court's review of emerging state laws that seek to limit access to abortion.

"Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Few lines from U.S. 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…

This updated edition includes a new afterword that identifies the role the Buck story plays in the Supreme Court's review of emerging state laws that seek to limit access to abortion.

"Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Few lines from U.S. 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. 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.

It has been more than a decade since Paul A. Lombardo's classic Three Generations, No Imbeciles first exposed the Buck case's fraudulent roots. During that time, several of the remaining twentieth-century eugenic sterilization statutes have finally been repealed, and reparations to sterilization survivors have been paid in two states. Discussion of the Buck case has once again engendered controversy in the courts. The Wisconsin Supreme Court invoked Buck most recently in a debate over the power of the state to enact restrictions on citizens and businesses during the COVID-19 crisis, and the US Supreme Court cited Three Generations, No Imbeciles in arguments over the newest state laws seeking to limit access to abortion.

This updated edition collects and analyzes information related to events and trends discussed in the earlier volume and includes a completely new afterword, "Looking Back at Buck," that explains how the case remains a key feature of public discourse about disability, government power, and reproductive rights. It also presents restored copies of the letters of Carrie Buck and points readers to an online archive of legal documents, images, and other material relevant to the case. The book remains a key resource for law school faculties, legal and medical historians, and anyone with an interest in the history of reproduction in the United States.

"Startling."—Reason

"Compelling and well-researched... Three Generations, No Imbeciles gives Carrie Buck's long-untold story the attention it deserves."—Harvard Law Review

"Three Generations provides valuable, new, and timely revelations for students and professional scholars across many disciplines."—Disability Studies Quarterly

"Meticulously detailed and researched history... this book is enjoyable, thought provoking, and troubling in equal measure. I highly recommend it."—Psychiatric Services

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Three Generations, No Imbeciles

Paul A. Lombardo

updated edition
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Reviews

Reviews

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.

Overall, a fascinating book on one of the darker decisions in US law. An excellent addition to collections on US constitutional law, history, and reproductive rights.

For almost 30 years, Lombardo has tried to uncover the full story of the wrongs.

Highly recommended for academic, public, and law libraries.

An engrossing look at a shameful case.

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About

Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
424
ISBN
9781421443188
Illustration Description
36 b&w illus.
Table of Contents

Preface to Updated Edition
Introduction
Prologue: The Expert Witness
1. Problem Families
2. Sex and Surgery
3. The Pedigree Factory
4. Studying Sterilization
5. The Mallory Case
6. Laughlin's Book
7. A

Preface to Updated Edition
Introduction
Prologue: The Expert Witness
1. Problem Families
2. Sex and Surgery
3. The Pedigree Factory
4. Studying Sterilization
5. The Mallory Case
6. Laughlin's Book
7. A Virginia Sterilization Law
8. Choosing Carrie Buck
9. Carrie Buck versus Dr. Priddy
10. Defenseless
11. On Appeal: Buck v. Bell
12. In the Supreme Court
13. Reactions and Repercussions
14. After the Supreme Court
15. Sterilizing Germans
16. Skinner v. Oklahoma
17. Buck, at Nuremberg and After
18. Rediscovering Buck
Epilogue: Reconsidering Buck
Afterword: Looking Back at Buck
Acknowledgments
Appendix A: The Supreme Court Opinion in Buck v. Bell, by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Appendix B: Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act, 1924
Appendix C: Laws and Sterilizations by State
Appendix D: Carrie Buck's letters
Notes
A Note on Sources
Index

Author Bio
Featured Contributor

Paul A. Lombardo

Paul A. Lombardo (ATLANTA, GA) is a Regents' Professor and the Bobby Lee Cook Professor of Law at Georgia State University. The author of A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, 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.