One of the things I've been talking about of late is the mindset of people from the 1920s and 1930s about sterilization. They justified it in two ways. First, on the basis of the cost to society of the children of those who would be sterilized. The good to society outweighed the harm to the individual. Holmes' statement in Buck v. Bell is the best known of the many utilitarian statements made by courts supporting sterilization.
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.
Though Holmes' statement is the best-known, there were others. This was a more extreme version of the sentiments the Virginia Supreme Court expressed in Buck v. Bell in 1925, which observed that Carrie Buck's welfare and that of Virginia were both promoted by sterilization. Similarly, in Smith v. Command, a 1925 Michigan decision that upheld the state's sterilization statute, Justice McDonald emphasized the costs to the community: "That they [the people to be sterilized] are a serious menace to society no one will question." "Under the existing circumstances it was not only its undoubted right, but it was its duty, to enact some legisaltion that would protect the people and preserve the reace from the known effects of the procreation of children by the feeble-minded, the idiots, and the embeciles." "It is an historic fact that every forward step in the progres of the race is marked by an interference with individual liberties."
Second, on the supposed value to the people to be sterilized. The supposed advantage was that the sterilized individuals could return to the community and not have to care for children. I'm guessing we're all skeptical of such justifications.
But what really interests me is how long a tail these justifications have -- right up to the middle of the 1970s in one case. In re Moore, a 1976 decision in the North Carolina Supreme Court, quoted Buck v. Bell for the proposition that the state has an interest in preventing births of children who will be charges on the state. There was no heightened scrutiny for impositions on reproductive rights. It's a shocking opinion, really -- much better suited to the era of the 1920s then the era of modern equal protection. Mind you, this is three years after Roe -- which was also cited, not for the proposition that individuals have fundamental rights to control reproductive decisions, but for the proposition that the state may regulate those decisions. (In re Moore at 102 ("The right to procreate is not absolute but is vulnerable to a certain degree of state regulation. Roe v. Wade, supra; Buck v. Bell.")). That's astonishing that Roe v. Wade and Buck v. Bell were cited together.