Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to block part of an Indiana law banning abortion based on the sex, race, or health defects of the fetus. In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas maintained that the current reproductive rights movement has disquieting similarities to earlier population control groups that sought to limit the birth rates of those they deemed unfit. He cited Margaret Sanger’s eugenic proclivities and allies, and stated that currently abortion rates are highest among racial minorities and the disabled — precisely the groups that old-style eugenicists had hoped to reduce. He insinuated that the abortion rights movement is racist.
Many anti-abortionists like the idea of associating present-day reproductive rights activists with the racist agendas of earlier zero population growth advocates, and right-wing commentators such as Ross Douthat of The New York Times welcomed Thomas’ remarks as if they contained some sort of profound truth. (Occasionally in the past this line of argument has been used as a cover for opposition to women’s health rights. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s some male Black nationalists such as Amiri Baraka and several Black Panther leaders battled with their female counterparts and other Black women’s health activists over this point, with the men denouncing birth control as a genocidal plot and the women insisting on their right to limit family size.)
But Thomas’ efforts to link modern-day abortion rights proponents with 20th-century eugenicists are hypocritical and historically unsound. For one thing, except for a brief time in her more radical youth, Margaret Sanger opposed the legalization of abortion. Neither she nor even the most viciously racist eugenicists whose support she solicited (for example, the Nazi sympathizer and Ku Klux Klan member Lothrop Stoddard) advocated abortion as a means of limiting “undesirable” populations. Rather, they pushed contraception and in some cases sterilization of those they considered “unfit.” Abortion rarely if ever figured into the discourse of eugenicists.
Lothrop Stoddard (1883–1950)
Eugenicist, white supremacist, Nazi supporter, and co-founder of the American Birth Control League
Moreover, mid-19th century movements to make abortion illegal in the U.S. and other countries emerged not so much from some pious life-begins-at-conception notion but rather from fears that the wrong women were practicing abortion. Doctors and other upper-middle-class white professionals pointed uneasily to the relatively large families of people of color, immigrants and the working class, and lamented the propensity of affluent, educated white women to limit family size through abortion. Even in more recent times, echoes of these racist fears can be found among some foes of legalized abortion. In 2007, Portuguese Cardinal José da Cruz Policarpo couched his opposition to legalizing the practice in racist terms, saying that European (i.e., white) culture and values would be put at risk by low birth rates relative to those of (non-white) immigrants to his country.
Besides distorting history, Thomas’ argument blatantly ignores two basic facts. First, if women of color are disproportionately represented among women who seek abortions, it is because they are disproportionately represented among the poor. (According to research by the Guttmacher Institute, 75% of abortion patients in the U.S. are poor or low-income.) Yet self-styled “pro-life” crusaders are conspicuous by their absence when it comes to advocating comprehensive sex education, free prenatal care, onsite infant day care at Walmart’s and other low-wage employers, and similar measures that might actually help underprivileged women and their offspring. Until Clarence Thomas, Ross Douthat, and other opponents of legal abortion demonstrate concrete support for babies of the disadvantaged who have already been born, their professed concern for minority populations is disingenuous and hypocritical.
Second, anyone who has any knowledge of the historical or present-day statistics on abortion worldwide knows full well that prohibiting abortion does virtually nothing to prevent the practice. The procedure becomes more costly and more difficult to obtain, and desperate women without the means to flee to a more reproductive-health-conscious state or country are likely to attempt self-induction or fall into the hands of unscrupulous clandestine providers. Meanwhile, affluent women can virtually always obtain safe illegal abortions.
Safe, legal, accessible abortion is a vital necessity for women’s reproductive health and wellbeing, and this is especially true for low-income and minority women, who are the main victims of policies that restrict access. Right-wing jurists such as Clarence Thomas are no friend of minority women.