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U.S. Eugenics Legacy: Ruling on Buck Sterilization Still Stands

By Andrea Pitzer
Special for USA TODAY

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Paul Lombardo hadn't planned on a three-decade detour when he stopped at a greasy-spoon restaurant for breakfast in February 1980. Lombardo, then a graduate student at the University of Virginia, picked up a newspaper to read as he ate his bacon and eggs.

And the rest is history, literally and figuratively. For almost 30 years, Lombardo has tried to uncover the full story of the wrongs he read about that day.

The article he had stumbled across was about two sisters sterilized in the 1920s by the state of Virginia for being "feeble-minded." The younger sister hadn't even known she'd had a tubal ligation. She didn't learn until she was in her late 60s that the surgery hadn't been for appendicitis. The older, more famous sister — Carrie Buck — was the subject of the now infamous lawsuit over the legality of the operation, Buck v. Bell, that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He read that although Carrie Buck was the first victim of a 1924 sterilization law, 8,300 Virginians had involuntary sterilization until the practice was stopped in the 1970s. The law itself was repealed in 1974. "It was startling," says Lombardo, 59, now a legal historian at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
He had not known of eugenics — the "science" of human improvement through controlled breeding — as more than a vague concept. Learning that there had been many eugenics programs in the United States in the 20th century and that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Buck's sterilization amazed him.

"Three generations of imbeciles are enough," Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in the 1927 ruling. Lombardo says: "This woman got railroaded. And one of the giants of the Supreme Court was driving the train."

In the years that followed, Lombardo's Ph.D. dissertation focused on the attorney who fought to have Buck sterilized. In 1985, he published more research in the New York University Law Review, saying that key "facts" of the Buck case were simply not true and that Buck never received any real legal representation.

He has written journal articles and made many speeches on the subject, finding himself returning to the details of the story again and again. The case was "part of my intellectual life for so long that in some senses it was my … 'hobby' is not the right word," Lombardo says. " 'Obsession' would probably be closer."

Last fall, his book Three Generations, No Imbeciles was published. In February, he traveled to Rome to speak on the dangers of eugenics at a Vatican conference. He is working on a book titled 100 Years of Eugenics: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Project.

Lombardo has no plans to abandon his fight to publicize the terrible history of eugenics. With genetics playing an increasingly important role in science, Lombardo and other bioethicists fear the lessons of the eugenics debacle matter more than ever.

University of Maryland historian Steven Selden worries about how we will handle the ethical questions of possible genetic "improvements" to humanity. "We're going to revisit all the ethical conundrums that were inherent in the eugenics movement as we move forward."

The story of Carrie Buck

Buck was born and raised in Charlottesville, then became pregnant near her 17th birthday. Her foster parents had her institutionalized as a "feeble-minded moral delinquent," despite her claims that she had been assaulted by their nephew. When she gave birth, her child was given to her foster parents, who adopted her, and Buck was sent to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded in Lynchburg. Buck's mother had already been committed to the colony.

With three generations available for examination, colony superintendent Albert Priddy felt confident that he could prove the Buck women were defective. He sought to have Carrie Buck sterilized under Virginia's new law authorizing surgery on epileptics, the feeble-minded, imbeciles and the socially inadequate.

The case went to court, and as it worked its way through the legal system, Priddy died and John Bell took his place at the colony. By virtue of his new position, Bell became the official defendant in the case, known thereafter as Buck v. Bell.

Aubrey Strode, the legislator who had written the Virginia law, became the lawyer representing the colony in the fight to sterilize Buck. Strode and Buck's appointed attorney, Irving Whitehead, were childhood friends. Whitehead, a longtime supporter of sterilization, had been a founding director of the Virginia Colony.

Even for a small town half a century ago, the connections felt suspect to Lombardo. The whole process, from Buck's institutionalization to the Supreme Court decision that the state could legally sterilize her, seemed cruel and arbitrary to him. Buck was indeed sterilized after the high court's ruling and was later paroled from the colony.

In his research, Lombardo found report cards for Carrie and her daughter Vivian. Buck had been passed on each year with "very good" marks in deportment and lessons. Vivian had made the honor roll. There was nothing to suggest any mental deficiency in either of them.

The child died at age 8 from measles and an intestinal infection.

Buck. v. Bell has never been overturned.

The aftermath

Though he hadn't discovered Carrie Buck or eugenics before living in Charlottesville, Lombardo had inadvertently landed in the perfect place to study both. Bastions of eugenics lay farther north, in New York and Massachusetts, but Virginia and its university had their own deep ties to the movement, which aimed to improve the human race much as livestock is bred. Eugenic schemes included immigration restriction, laws against interracial marriage, and sterilization of those considered "defective."

In all, more than 30 states passed legislation supporting sterilization as part of a eugenic program. The official numbers of surgeries exceeded 65,000, and targeted groups included — as they did in Virginia — epileptics, the "feeble-minded," "imbeciles" and the "socially inadequate." Nazis on trial at Nuremberg after World War II cited the influence of American eugenics programs on their policies and mentioned Buck v. Bell in their testimony.

The passion for eugenics faded after the war as news of the Nazi atrocities came to light. But sterilization is still proposed from time to time as a remedy to a social problem.

In 2006, Virginia state Sen. Emmett Hanger, who would represent Buck if she were alive today, introduced a bill to offer castration to some sex offenders in exchange for release into the community after serving their sentences. His efforts to date have been unsuccessful.

Hanger calls Virginia's eugenics history "reprehensible" but says he does not fear that provisions for government-sanctioned sterilization will be misused.

"I have no concerns that there would be any return to the past," he says.

On Monday, North Carolina officials unveiled a historical marker in Raleigh that notes the sterilization of more than 7,600 people "by choice or coercion" in the name of eugenics.

Lifelong effects

Lombardo met Buck shortly before her death in 1983 at 76.

She was living in a residence for poor senior citizens in Waynesboro. Lombardo found her sitting frail and hunched in her wheelchair. He talked with her a bit, and then asked if it were true that she had been assaulted. She said yes. And then she confirmed that she had gone to school and been promoted through several grades. Lombardo asked about her sister, Doris Figgins, who had recently died. He didn't feel comfortable going much further.

"She was happy to have a visitor. It was clear, though, that she still felt the shame. What was done to her affected her in a bad way her whole life."

In 2002, the Virginia Legislature passed a resolution specifically recognizing the mistreatment of Carrie Buck. That year Lombardo paid more than $1,200 for the posting of a historical marker in front of a Charlottesville community center to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Buck v. Bell.

The infamous state Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded underwent several name and mission changes in the years after Carrie Buck was released. It is now called the Central Virginia Training Center and focuses on providing services to the mentally retarded.

But Lombardo is not optimistic that most Americans will remember Carrie Buck's story. Historian Selden hopes they do. "The moral issues do not go away," he says. "They get transformed. They change. But they come back to us again."

Carrie and Vivian are buried in Charlottesville's Oakwood Cemetery, Vivian next to her adoptive parents, who reported on her death certificate that they did not know the name of her birth mother.

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