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J Contemp Health Law Policy. 1996 Fall;13(1):1-25.

Medicine, eugenics, and the Supreme Court: from coercive sterilization to reproductive freedom.

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General Faculty of the School of Law, Center for Mental Health Law, University of Virginia, USA.



This article shows how the current language of reproductive rights, including the determination of US constitutional protections, can be traced to three cases heard by the US Supreme Court that challenged eugenic state legislation written between 1924 and 1935. The introduction defines "eugenics" as the notion that the human race can be improved and social ills gradually eliminated by selective procreation and notes that eugenicists were extremely effective in using the law as their ally and effected the adoption of nearly 100 eugenic statutes by the states between 1900 and 1970. Part 2 examines the classification of social deviance as a social ill that could be overcome by the application of eugenic principles bolstered by scientific explanations about defective "germ-plasm." The third part of the article illustrates the legal impact of US eugenicists in 1924 when the Federal Immigration Restriction Act was adopted with national origin quotas that remained in place until 1965. This year also saw adoption of two eugenic laws enacted in Virginia that would be later challenged in the Supreme Court. Part 4 details one of these cases, Buck vs. Bell, that challenged Virginia's Eugenical Sterilization Act. In upholding the Virginia statute, the Supreme Court allowed the forced sterilization of a young woman in the first and only instance in which the Court allowed a physician to act as an agent of state government in the performance of an undesired and unnecessary operation. Part 5 describes how the Supreme Court overturned Oklahoma's law mandating the sterilization of "hereditary criminals" in Skinner vs. Oklahoma. The 1967 ruling in Loving vs. Virginia overturning Virginia's Racial Integrity Act preventing interracial marriage is presented in part 6. The article ends by tracing the impact of these cases on the constitutionalization of reproductive rights in the US.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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