In the latest edition of Psychiatric Services, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Public Representation, Newton, Massachusetts points to a connection between eugenics laws of the 1920’s and our current abortion law.
In reviewing a book by Paul Lombardo about the sterilization of Carrie Buck and the now infamous Supreme Court decision of Buck v. Bell where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld the sterilization of Carrie Buck and others like her with the infamous sentence, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
The ruling was the codification of eugenics in America and led to the sterilization of hundreds of thousands of poor and disabled women.
She said eventually many states passed legislation protecting people with disabilities from sterilization. But then Roe came along.
But Roe v. Wade was used to overturn protective state legislation banning sterilization of people with mental retardation and enabling guardians to impose sterilization on their wards. Thus each case has been used to support sterilization of people with mental disabilities. Our continuing social ambivalence about these issues makes Lombardo’s book starkly relevant today, when women are using the rights they gained under Roe v. Wade to abort fetuses found to have Down’s syndrome and the Supreme Court protects hospitals that follow parents’ direction to provide only palliative care to infants born disabled when those infants could have been treated and lived (3). Is it hypocritical to criticize the statement that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” when individuals today decide that even one generation is too many?
So anyone who tries to say that abortion laws and eugenics don’t coincide neatly, are just not facing the facts.
Roe, in many ways, is the continuation of Buck v. Bell – which is almost unanimously seen as one of the most tragic decisions of the Supreme Court. We should pray that one day this country can look back on Roe the same way.