Putting Buck v. Bell in Scientific and Historical Context

11 Pages Posted: 25 Oct 2011

See all articles by Edward Larson

Edward Larson

Pepperdine University - Rick J. Caruso School of Law

Date Written: 2011


In this article written for a law-review symposium in response to a presentation on the infamous 1927 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Buck v. Bell, Edward J. Larson argues that, at the time that the case was decided, eugenics was on the incline, not the decline. In the 1920s, the American scientific and medical community broadly backed eugenic remedies for various forms of mental illness and retardation. Legislatures, lawyers, and jurists took their cue from this scientific and medical consensus. Absent any question that the statute at issue in Buck v. Bell was validly passed by the Virginia legislature or that due process was provided for the persons subject to its reach, the law should have withstood constitutional challenge. The tragedy of Buck v. Bell, Larson argues, was that Carrie Buck never received the due process guaranteed under Virginia’s eugenic sterilization statute and that neither her lawyers nor the courts protected her from a flagrant violation of her basic constitutional and statutory rights. Under the fact that should have been brought out at trial, Carrie Buck would not have been sterilized. More fundamentally, had due process been provided in this and other instances, while eugenics would still have been a scientific and medical mistake, it would not be a legal one.

Keywords: Buck v. Bell, Eugenics, Sterilization, Due Process, Constitutional Rights, Victoria Nourse

JEL Classification: K19, K49

Suggested Citation

Larson, Edward J., Putting Buck v. Bell in Scientific and Historical Context (2011). Pepperdine Law Review, Vol. 39, 2011, Pepperdine University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012/4, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1948793

Edward J. Larson (Contact Author)

Pepperdine University - Rick J. Caruso School of Law ( email )

24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263
United States

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