SCOTUS Claims Abortion Proponents Are Motivated by Eugenics and Eliminating the ‘Unfit’—But History Says Otherwise

An abortion rights activist in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on May 3, 2022. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Tucked away in a footnote of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court proclaims that some “proponents of liberal access to abortion … have been motivated by a desire to suppress the size of the African American population.” It thus implies that overturning Roe v. Wade will turn the tide away from this genocidal impulse.

In support of its claim regarding population suppression, the Court cites a concurring opinion from Justice Thomas in the 2019 case of Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky in which he warns states to not “become a tool of modern-day eugenics” by permitting abortion based upon the race of the fetus (or other select characteristics, such as sex or disability). Putting historical muscle behind this caution, Thomas insists that the “use of abortion to achieve eugenic goals [is] not merely hypothetical” but that it had been a strategy of early 20th century birth control advocates—most famously Margaret Sanger—as a means of “reducing the ‘ever increasing, unceasing spawning class of human beings who should never have been born at all.’”

In sounding the alarm, Thomas relies upon, as Professor Melissa Murray wrote, “a selective history of reproductive rights,” which is associated with the movement to legalize birth control, with no demonstrable crossover support for using abortion as a means of ridding the nation of ‘undesirables.’

Further pushing back against Thomas’ problematic reading of the historical record, Professor Paul Lombardi, a leading scholar of the eugenics movement, stressed, “I’ve been studying this stuff for 40 years and I’ve never been able to find a leader of the eugenics movement that came out and said they supported abortion.”

Thomas, of course, is not the only one to assert that supporters of abortion rights are engaged in a nefarious eugenical plot, which currently is aimed in large part at the Black community. Perhaps most famously in this regard is the Black genocide billboard campaign launched by Radiance Foundation in 2010 during Black History Month as an integral part of its “Too Many Aborted” initiative. Deploying catchy phrases such as “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb” or “All Black Lives Matter,” these posters seek to call out “Planned Parenthood’s eugenic past and unaltered racist and elitist DNA,” and to alert the public that “Abortion is the #1 killer in the Black community.”

In accord with this claim, the majority footnote in Dobbs notes that the plot to “suppress the size of the African American population” by way of “liberal access to abortion” has been successful. As stated, “It is beyond dispute that Roe has had that demographic effect. A highly disproportionate percentage of aborted fetuses are Black.”

Wholly ignored here, however, is the underlying reality, as argued in the amicus brief filed in Dobbs by the Howard School of Law Human and Civil Rights Clinic, that this disproportionality stems from disparate health outcomes and access to healthcare by Black women. … It also gives short shrift to the fact that this disparity likely drives many women to choose an abortion rather than undergo a pregnancy that may put them at risk of death … [and] are also intimately connected to the historical subjugation of Black women that has been endemic in this country.

As Murray argued, the abortion and eugenics linkage also “promotes a masculinist vision of abortion, and in so doing, evinces a palpable distrust of Black women and their reproductive choices.”

The Court’s reliance upon Thomas’ concurring opinion in Box is marred by yet another deep flaw—namely, that he inverts the historical record. It is not supporters of liberal access to abortion who have sought to harness it for eugenical ends. Rather, eugenics were an integral component of the successful 19th century crusade by elite physicians to make abortion a strict statutory crime, subject only to a life-saving exception.

Of deep concern, these activists feared that the increasing reliance upon abortion—by ‘respectable’ married women who were white, Protestant and ‘native-born’ like them—to control family size would result in the loss of “national characteristics” with the eventual assimilation “into those of our foreign population.” As one prominent anti-abortion physician falsely forewarned, unless “their” women began fulfilling their procreative responsibilities, “the best stock that the world ever saw, under what would be considered the best family training, the highest ranks order of educational influences and the purest religious instruction,” would be replaced by “a people of foreign origin, with far less intelligence and a religion entirely different.”

Making clear that this was not mere idle speculation, in 1890, a fellow (they were all men) physician bemoaned the fact that the once “cultured” Boston, the “proud city of the Puritans” had “become almost, if not quite, an Irish and a Catholic city, rejoicing in the possession of a mayor by the classic name of O’Brien.” Steeped in these nativist views, abortion was accordingly cast as “an offence of a national and political nature.”

The anti-abortion physicians laid blame for the precarious demographic state of the country squarely upon the shoulders of the modern “respectable” matron. They derisively proclaimed that she had been led astray by the contemporaneous women’s rights movement which was spreading the foolish propaganda that “women [were] born for higher and nobler purposes than the propagation of the species.” They thus proclaimed that the “future destiny of the nation” rested upon the “loins” of “our own women” who were vested with a sacred obligation to reproduce “an intelligent Christianity, and … an intelligent and safe civilization.”

Flying in the face of the effort by the Dobbs Court to position itself on the right side of history by linking abortion rights with the eugenic objective of eliminating the ‘unfit, it was the  anti-abortion physicians who, as James Mohr writes in his classic book, “beat the old nativist drums on behalf of anti-abortion policies.” It was they who, to again quote from Thomas’ concurring opinion in Box, but in support of the opposite proposition, sought to prevent the “supplanting or absorption of the higher by the lower types,” through the enactment of a strict criminal regime.

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Shoshanna Ehrlich is professor emerita of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her books include Who Decides: The Abortion Rights of Teens and the co-authored Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom. She is currently collaborating with the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ ASPIRE Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health on a minors’ abortion rights and access project.