Compulsory sterilization of the intellectually weak

The ruling in Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, ex rel. Williamson (316 U.S. 535, 1942) ended punitive sterilization. The ratio decidendi did not touch on compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled or mentally ill and was not a strict overturning of the United State (US) Supreme Court's ruling in Buck v. Bell (1927).

Buck v. Bell ruled that a law permitting compulsory sterilization of the unfit, including the intellectually disabled, "for the protection and health of the state," did not violate the due process clause. In short, it was held to be a valid exercise of police power. According to the Court:
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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
The Court found that the statute did not violate the Constitution. Justice Holmes made clear that Buck's challenge was not upon the medical procedure involved but on the process of the substantive law. Since sterilization could not occur until a proper hearing had occurred (at which the patient and a guardian could be present) and after the Circuit Court of the County and the Supreme Court of Appeals had reviewed the case, if so requested by the patient. Only after "months of observation" could the operation take place. That was enough to satisfy the Court that there was no Constitutional violation. Citing the best interests of the state, Justice Holmes affirmed the value of a law like Virginia's in order to prevent the nation from "being swamped with incompetence . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough." (Buck v. Bell. www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/274us200)

However, there are those who disagree with the pronouncement of the Court.

The Buck v. Bell decision is unconstitutional because: (1) it is based on hateful and outdated eugenic ideology; (2) it unceremoniously dismisses the mentally disabled individual’s Equal Protection and Due Process claims with little analysis or explanation; and (3) involuntary sterilization and compulsory vaccination are grossly incomparable and thus compulsory vaccination laws cannot serve as a justification for the decision. (Griffin, 2018)

In Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Court held a state statute requiring the vaccination of all of its inhabitants to be a valid exercise of police power.47 In it’s holding, the Court subordinated individual privacy interests in not receiving a small pox vaccination to the state public health interest in preventing the spread of small pox.48 The Court properly found the costbenefit inquiry to weigh in favor of the public welfare. 49 There, the state legislature took a necessary and properly tailored action to prevent the proliferation of a highly contagious and deadly infectious disease. (Griffin, Devin, "Public Health and Sterilization of the Mentally Disabled: Under What Circumstances Should It Be Scrutinized Versus Granted By Court Order?" (2018). Law School Student Scholarship. 938. scholarship.shu.eduscholarship.shu.edu)One does not need to elaborate very much to explain how being mentally disabled differs from the epidemic of small pox. The latter is a highly infectious disease that disfigures its victims and oftentimes ends in the fatality of the victim. The former is not a disease nor is it contagious.50 In the case of small pox, failure to take state action would have resulted in immeasurable damage to the human population, whereas no such risk accompanies procreation of those with mental disabilities. If the state failed to take action to sterilize the mentally disabled, no impending doom would have engulfed the state. In the case of Jabobson, the need for all-encompassing legislation was necessary to prevent the spread of the highly infectious disease: one infected individual could potentially cause the demise of the remainder of the population. Accordingly, this justification must be recognized as invalid. (Griffin, Devin, "Public Health and Sterilization of the Mentally Disabled: Under What Circumstances Should It Be Scrutinized Versus Granted By Court Order?" (2018). Law School Student Scholarship. 938. scholarship.shu.edu; scholarship.shu.edu)

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