3.6.7 Old South (1920-1965): Eugenics Laws

Buck v. Bell Virginia, 1925 (130 S.E. 516), affirmed, 274 U.S. 200 (1927); Brewer v. Valk – North Carolina, 1933 (167 S.E. 638); In re Moore’s Sterilization – North Carolina, 1976 (221 S.E.2d 307)
  • During the early 20th century many Americans had a general fear of change as the simpler, agrarian world of the19th century disappeared and it was apparent that the world to follow would be complex and diverse.  One of the uglier offshoots of this generalized fear was a feeling that those with mental and other disabilities were preventing the United States from achieving its full potential.  That feeling triggered a “eugenics” movement which persuaded many states to enact compulsory sterilization laws. 
  • The Old South embraced such laws, which meshed nicely with its tradition of strong social and racial hierarchy.  Between 1919 and 1923 all old South states except Maryland adopted sterilization laws, and Virginia and North Carolina sterilized more persons than any other state except California. 
  • The laws were frequently challenged, and many state courts expressed serious qualms about the laws (see §§ __).  Not so the Virginia supreme court:  in Buck, it concluded that Virginia’s law gave candidates for sterilization an adequate opportunity to be heard before they were sterilized.  The court then praised the law, drawing an uncomfortably blunt connection between eugenics and racial control.  On appeal, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld the law in an opinion that became the largest blot on his judicial reputation.   
  • In Brewer, the North Carolina supreme court struck down a similar law because it did not provide as many procedural safeguards as Virginia’s law, but several decades later, in Moore, the court upheld a modified eugenics law and continued to commend the goals of eugenics, at a time when other states were rapidly repealing their laws as relics of a bygone era less sensitive to individual rights. 

“The purpose of the legislation was not to punish but to protect the class of socially inadequate citizens named therein from themselves, and to promote the welfare of society by mitigating race degeneracy and raising the average std of intelligence of the people of the State.” – Justice Jesse West, in Buck


“Measured by its injurious effect upon society, the state may limit a class of citizens in its right to bear or beget children with an inherited tendency to mental deficiency, including feeblemindedness, idiocy, or imbecility.  It is the function of the Legislature, and its duty as well, to enact appropriate legislation to protect the public and preserve the race from the known effects of the procreation of mentally deficient children by the mentally deficient.” – Justice Dan Moore, in Moore