The coda of The Mismeasure of Man, Steve Gould’s book on the history of racism and “scientifically based” eugenics, is one of my favorite pieces of science writing. It’s a scant two pages, but is beautifully written and so emotionally powerful that it almost moves me to tears. In it, Gould recounts Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a young woman who, by all accounts, was of normal intelligence. Embarrassed that Carrie had become pregnant after being raped, her parents committed her to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, where she was forcibly sterilized under a Virginia eugenics law.
Upholding that law, Holmes made the infamous pro-eugenics statement, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (Buck’s mother and daughter were also allegedly “feeble-minded.”)
Buck later married and was desolate that she and her husband couldn’t have children. She died in 1983, but was still alive when Gould wrote his book in 1981. Sadly, her sister Doris suffered the same fate: forcibly sterilized, married, and desperate but unable to have children.
The last paragraph of Gould’s book is, to me, an example of his writing at its finest:
One might invoke an unfeeling calculus and say that Doris Buck’s disappointment ranks as nothing compared with millions dead in wars to support the designs of madmen or the conceits of rulers. But can one measure the pain of a single dream unfulfilled, the hope of a defenseless woman snatched by public power in the name of an ideology advanced to purify a race? May Doris Buck’s simple and eloquent testimony stand for millions of deaths and disappointments and help us to remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath: “I broke down and cried. My husband and me wanted children desperately. We were crazy about them. I never knew what they’d done to me.”
Carrie Buck, who along with 6,682 others (4042 of them women), was forcibly and involuntarily sterilized under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.