Imbeciles, by Adam Cohen


American history is full of injustices. Forgetting these injustices adds insult to injury. Adam Cohen reminds us of one of these injustices—a shocking case of legal shenanigans—with Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. In 1927, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck in Buck v. BellIn reading this book, I was shocked to discover that the ruling has not been overturned.

Imbeciles is told mostly through biographies. Cohen tells us about the lives of Carrie Buck and the doctors, lawyers, and judges who conspired to deprive Buck of her ability to have children. Cohen also includes a short biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote the callous, brutal majority opinion for Buck v. Bell. At times, Cohen goes back a generation or two for the men (they were all men) involved in Buck’s case, drowning the strength of her story in superfluous detail.

In contrast, Cohen does an excellent job of illuminating the history of the American eugenics movement—a philosophy that partially inspired Hitler and Nazi racial policy. As he recounts the pseudoscientific arguments developed by eugenists, I was alternate horrified and enraged by their poor science and attitudes to anyone they deemed inferior. In the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, nearly two dozen states passed laws that authorized the sterilization of the “feeble-minded,” epileptics, and criminals—people eugenists wanted removed from the gene pool. Cohen explains the wildly inaccurate tests (Binet-Simon or based on Binet-Simon) that could, even when administered “properly,” classify up to half of the population as deficient. The name of the book comes from one of the categories from the revised Binet-Simon.

Imbeciles covers the chronology of forced sterilization and Carrie Buck’s case from the late 1910s through 1927. Buck was selected as a test case for Virginia’s new sterilization law because she and her mother had been designated “feeble-minded,” because she had borne a child out of wedlock, and because she was so young. We know know that many of her medical records were falsified or fabricated. The people arguing for her sterilization were so focused on validating the law that they effectively conspired to sabotage any defense Buck might have mustered in her medical hearing, her county court trial, her appeal trial, and before the US Supreme Court.

We Americans like to believe that the Supreme Court can undo great wrongs. It has, with cases like Brown v. Topeka Board of Education and Obergefell v. Hodges. But the Court also ruled against Dred Scott and Homer Plessy. It also ruled against Buck’s inherent right to control her own body. Holmes wrote the majority opinion for the court. It consists of just five paragraphs and contains shockingly heartless language. Holmes wrote:

It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (Buck v. Bell)

Forced sterilizations, according to Cohen, continued through the 1980s.

Anyone who reads this book, myself included, will wonder why the case is still valid law. Other unjust cases have been overturned. At the time, the arguments against forced sterilization focused on due process and equal protection. We now have better defined concepts of rights to privacy (which covers medical decisions) and awareness of the poor science of eugenics. Perhaps Imbeciles will restart the conversation.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 1 March 2016.