Buck Versus Bell Essay

3620 words - 14 pages

Buck versus Bell

During the early twentieth century, the United States was enduring significant social and economic changes due to its transformation into a commercial and industrial world power. As the need for labor escalated within many urban areas, millions of Europeans emigrated from Southern and Eastern Europe with the hopes of capitalizing upon these employment opportunities and attaining a better life. Simultaneously, many African-Americans migrated from the rural South into major cities, bearing the same intentions as those of the European immigrants. The presence of these minority groups generated both racial and class fears within white middle and upper class Americans. The fervent ethnocentrism resulting from these fears, coupled with the Social Darwinist concepts of Herbert Spencer, would ultimately spur the American eugenics movement. Originating from the theories of Sir Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, eugenics is the study of human heredity and genetic principles for the purposes of improving the human race by limiting the proliferation of defective gene pools. Charles Davenport, the founding father of the American eugenics movement, was one of many elite Americans advocating for the incorporation of the ideals of this new "science" into society. The work of Davenport, which became known as eugenic principles, would not only have an impact on public education, but a legal impact as well. By 1931, thirty state legislatures had passed involuntary sterilization laws that targeted "defective strains" within the general population, such as the blind, the deaf, the poor, and the feebleminded. Virginia, one of these states, held the position that involuntary sterilization would not only benefit the overall welfare of society, but would promote both the health and happiness of the sterilized individual as well.

In contrast to the "negative" eugenics position of the state of Virginia, involuntary sterilization laws emphasizing breeding restrictions for society's "unfit" neither benefit the welfare of the individual nor that of society for several moral and legal reasons. The legal validity of these involuntary sterilization laws would be challenged within the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell. In September of 1924, at the age of eighteen, Carrie Buck, an illegitimate daughter of an allegedly feebleminded woman, was admitted to the Virginia's State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. Six months earlier, the Virginia State Legislature decisively passed their involuntary sterilization bill authorizing the Superintendents of five state institutions to petition for the permission to sterilize inmates. Buck, who had a mental age of nine and an I.Q. of about fifty, had already given birth to an illegitimate child herself, who was allegedly feebleminded as well. At the time, the Superintendent of the State Colony, Dr. A. S. Priddy, petitioned for permission to sterilize this woman for fear that Buck would have more...

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