Abortion and Eugenics

This case highlights the fact that abortion is an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation.

In the Supreme Court’s May 28 decision in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, the Court declined to review an Indiana law prohibiting abortions on the basis of race, sex, or disability. Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion, excerpted below, describes the connections between abortion advocacy and eugenics, and the ways in which abortion is a tool of modern-day eugenicists.

 

This case highlights the fact that abortion is an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation. From the beginning, birth control and abortion were promoted as means of effectuating eugenics. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was particularly open about the fact that birth control could be used for eugenic purposes. These arguments about the eugenic potential for birth control apply with even greater force to abortion, which can be used to target specific children with unwanted characteristics. Even after World War II, future Planned Parenthood President Alan Guttmacher and other abortion advocates endorsed abortion for eugenic reasons and promoted it as a means of controlling the population and improving its quality. As explained below, a growing body of evidence suggests that eugenic goals are already being realized through abortion.

Like many elites of her day, Sanger accepted that eugenics was “the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.” She agreed with eugenicists that “the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit’” was “the greatest present menace to civilization.” Particularly “in a democracy like that of the United States,” where “[e]quality of political power has . . . been bestowed upon the lowest elements of our population,” Sanger worried that “reckless spawning carries with it the seeds of destruction.”

Although Sanger believed that society was “indebted” to “the Eugenists” for diagnosing these problems, she did not believe that they had “show[n] much power in suggesting practical and feasible remedies.” “As an advocate of Birth Control,” Sanger attempted to fill the gap by showing that birth control had “eugenic and civilizational value.” In her view, birth-control advocates and eugenicists were “seeking a single end” “to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” But Sanger believed that the focus should be “upon stopping not only the reproduction of the unfit but upon stopping all reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health.” Thus, for Sanger, forced sterilization did “not go to the bottom of the matter” because it did not “touc[h] the great problem of unlimited reproduction” of “those great masses, who through economic pressure populate the slums and there produce in their helplessness other helpless, diseased and incompetent masses, who overwhelm all that eugenics can do among those whose economic condition is better.” In Sanger’s view, frequent reproduction among “the majority of wage workers” would lead to “the contributing of morons, feeble-minded, insane and various criminal types to the already tremendous social burden constituted by these unfit.”

Sanger believed that birth control was an important part of the solution to these societal ills. She explained, “Birth Control . . . is really the greatest and most truly eugenic method” of “human generation,” “and its adoption as part of the program of Eugenics would immediately give a concrete and realistic power to that science.” Sanger even argued that “eugenists and others who are laboring for racial betterment” could not “succeed” unless they “first clear[ed] the way for Birth Control.” If “the masses” were given “practical education in Birth Control”—for which there was “almost universal demand”—then the “Eugenic educator” could use “Birth Control propaganda” to “direct a thorough education in Eugenics” and influence the reproductive decisions of the unfit. In this way, “the campaign for Birth Control [was] not merely of eugenic value, but [was] practically identical in ideal with the final aims of Eugenics.”

Sanger herself campaigned for birth control in black communities. In 1930, she opened a birth-control clinic in Harlem. Then, in 1939, Sanger initiated the “Negro Project,” an effort to promote birth control in poor, Southern black communities. Noting that blacks were “‘notoriously underprivileged and handicapped to a large measure by a “caste” system,’” she argued in a fundraising letter that “‘birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation.’” In a report titled “Birth Control and the Negro,” Sanger and her coauthors identified blacks as “‘the great problem of the South’”—“the group with ‘the greatest economic, health, and social problems’”—and developed a birth-control program geared toward this population. She later emphasized that black ministers should be involved in the program, noting, “‘We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.’”

Defenders of Sanger point out that W. E. B. DuBois and other black leaders supported the Negro Project and argue that her writings should not be read to imply a racial bias. But Sanger’s motives are immaterial to the point relevant here: that “Birth Control” has long been understood to “ope[n] the way to the eugenist.”

To be sure, Sanger distinguished between birth control and abortion. For Sanger, “[t]he one means health and happiness—a stronger, better race,” while “[t]he other means disease, suffering, [and] death.” Sanger argued that “nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to the horrors of abortion and infanticide,” and she questioned whether “we want the precious, tender qualities of womanhood, so much needed for our racial development, to perish in [the] sordid, abnormal experiences” of abortions. In short, unlike contraceptives, Sanger regarded “the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year [as] a disgrace to civilization.”

Although Sanger was undoubtedly correct in recognizing a moral difference between birth control and abortion, the eugenic arguments that she made in support of birth control apply with even greater force to abortion. Others were well aware that abortion could be used as a “metho[d] of eugenics,” and they were enthusiastic about that possibility. Indeed, some eugenicists believed that abortion should be legal for the very purpose of promoting eugenics. Support for abortion can therefore be found throughout the literature on eugenics.

Abortion advocates were sometimes candid about abortion’s eugenic possibilities. In 1959, for example, Guttmacher explicitly endorsed eugenic reasons for abortion.  He explained that “the quality of the parents must be taken into account,” including “[f]eeblemindedness,” and believed that “it should be permissible to abort any pregnancy . . . in which there is a strong probability of an abnormal or malformed infant.”  He added that the question whether to allow abortion must be “separated from emotional, moral and religious concepts” and “must have as its focus normal, healthy infants born into homes peopled with parents who have healthy bodies and minds.” Similarly, legal scholar Glanville Williams wrote that he was open to the possibility of eugenic infanticide, at least in some situations, explaining that “an eugenic killing by a mother, exactly paralleled by the bitch that kills her misshapen puppies, cannot confidently be pronounced immoral.”  The Court cited Williams’ book for a different proposition in Roe v. Wade.

But public aversion to eugenics after World War II also led many to avoid explicit references to that term. The American Eugenics Society, for example, changed the name of its scholarly publication from “Eugenics Quarterly” to “Social Biology.” In explaining the name change, the journal’s editor stated that it had become evident that eugenic goals could be achieved “for reasons other than eugenics.” For example, “[b]irth control and abortion are turning out to be great eugenic advances of our time. If they had been advanced for eugenic reasons it would have retarded or stopped their acceptance.” But whether they used the term “eugenics” or not, abortion advocates echoed the arguments of early twentieth-century eugenicists by describing abortion as a way to achieve “population control” and to improve the “quality” of the population. One journal declared that “abortion is the one mode of population limitation which has demonstrated the speedy impact which it can make upon a national problem.” Planned Parenthood’s leaders echoed these themes. When exulting over “‘fantastic . . . progress’” in expanding abortion, for example, Guttmacher stated that “‘the realization of the population problem has been responsible’ for the change in attitudes. ‘We’re now concerned more with the quality of population than the quantity.’”

Avoiding the word “eugenics” did not assuage everyone’s fears. Some black groups saw “‘family planning’ as a euphemism for race genocide” and believed that “black people [were] taking the brunt of the ‘planning’” under Planned Parenthood’s “ghetto approach” to distributing its services. “The Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” for example, “criticized family planners as bent on trying to keep the Negro birth rate as low as possible.”

Today, notwithstanding Sanger’s views on abortion, respondent Planned Parenthood promotes both birth control and abortion as “reproductive health services” that can be used for family planning.  And with today’s prenatal screening tests and other technologies, abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics. Indeed, the individualized nature of abortion gives it even more eugenic potential than birth control, which simply reduces the chance of conceiving any child. As petitioners and several amicus curiae briefs point out, moreover, abortion has proved to be a disturbingly effective tool for implementing the discriminatory preferenxces that undergird eugenics.

In Iceland, the abortion rate for children diagnosed with Down syndrome in utero approaches 100 percent. Other European countries have similarly high rates, and the rate in the United States is approximately two-thirds.

In Asia, widespread sex-selective abortions have led to as many as 160 million “missing” women—more than the entire female population of the United States. And recent evidence suggests that sex-selective abortions of girls are common among certain populations in the United States as well.

Eight decades after Sanger’s “Negro Project,” abortion in the United States is also marked by a considerable racial disparity. The reported nationwide abortion ratio—the number of abortions per 1,000 live births—among black women is nearly 3.5 times the ratio for white women. And there are areas of New York City in which black children are more likely to be aborted than they are to be born alive—and are up to eight times more likely to be aborted than white children in the same area. Whatever the reasons for these disparities, they suggest that, insofar as abortion is viewed as a method of “family planning,” black people do indeed “tak[e] the brunt of the ‘planning.’”

Some believe that the United States is already experiencing the eugenic effects of abortion. According to one economist, “Roe v. Wade help[ed] trigger, a generation later, the greatest crime drop in recorded history.” On this view, “it turns out that not all children are born equal” in terms of criminal propensity. And legalized abortion meant that the children of “poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers” who were “much more likely than average to become criminals” “weren’t being born.”  Whether accurate or not, these observations echo the views articulated by the eugenicists and by Sanger decades earlier: “Birth Control of itself . . . will make a better race” and tend “toward the elimination of the unfit.”

Enshrining a constitutional right to an abortion based solely on the race, sex, or disability of an unborn child, as Planned Parenthood advocates, would constitutionalize the views of the twentieth-century eugenics movement. In other contexts, the Court has been zealous in vindicating the rights of people even potentially subjected to race, sex, and disability discrimination. Although the Court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever.

Clarence Thomas is a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

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