The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Clarence Thomas gets wrong about the ties between abortion and eugenics

There were fundamental differences between eugenicists and those fighting for abortion rights.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas addresses the Federalist Society in Washington on Nov. 15, 2007. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided not to weigh in on part of an Indiana law prohibiting abortion based on fetal race, sex or disability. But despite the court’s demurral, Justice Clarence Thomas tackled the provision head-on in a concurrence that provoked ire on the left and cheers from the right (including from Vice President Pence).

Although agreeing with the court’s decision to defer judgment, Thomas seized the occasion to offer a lengthy history of eugenics and its relationship to both population control and abortion. He argued that abortion advocates in earlier eras saw abortion as a way to control populations and choose “desirable” traits. Then he drew a direct connection between these historical actors and women today who undergo prenatal genetic counseling and choose to end a pregnancy because of a child’s sex or disability.

The court’s most outspoken critic of Roe v. Wade got some of the broad brushstrokes right. There were historical connections between the eugenics and population control movements and the push for birth control and abortion rights. But the historical through-line he describes bears little resemblance to reality. His angry indictment distorts the messy story of these relationships, ones that were often strategic rather than ideological. In the process, Thomas creates easy villains and heroes, while exonerating the many Americans who embraced eugenics and population control.

Thomas slammed Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger for being a racist who believed that legal birth control would have powerful eugenic effects. He painted her, along with other early birth controllers and later population controllers, as committed eugenicists.

But the historical record is not nearly so decisive. Yes, Sanger and her allies courted eugenicists in their push for legalized birth control. But often, this effort appears far more opportunistic — trying to capitalize upon widespread support for first eugenics, and later population control — than the work of true believers. In fact, it is hard to tell what Sanger herself actually believed, simply because it is obvious why she would court eugenicists in the 1910s and 1920s in her fight for birth control: They had powerful positions and public support, something proponents of legal contraception often lacked.

Sanger may have shared the beliefs of those who bemoaned the fertility of people with mental disabilities. That would hardly have made her unique: In that era, such beliefs were embraced by powerful politicians in both parties, self-proclaimed free lovers and proponents of the traditional family who chastised college-educated women for having too few children. Yet her rhetoric may also have simply been an act of expediency, a means to an end.

There was, in fact, no obvious alliance between advocates of abortion and birth control and eugenicists. Eugenicists showed little interest in using birth control to weed out “the unfit.” Many movement leaders like Charles Davenport rejected birth control because it left too much autonomy in women’s hands. Eugenicists preferred state-mandated sterilization because they viewed individual choice as anathema to their cause.

Thomas ignores this fundamental rift, which shows that the alliance between Sanger and eugenicists was not nearly as neat as he asserts.

Thomas also went beyond Sanger’s generation, tying abortion advocates in the 1960s and 1970s to eugenic aims and a desire for population control. Again, it’s true that key abortion reformers used population control arguments. The abortion rights movement and the population control movement undoubtedly had many, often complex, ties. John D. Rockefeller III, a Republican, chaired President Richard M. Nixon’s commission on population growth and endorsed the legalization of abortion. Zero Population Growth Inc., a prominent population control group, campaigned for the repeal of all abortion restrictions.

Thomas is also right that some eugenic legal reformers rebranded themselves in this era as population controllers, believing that lowering population growth would improve the “quality” of the population.

But again, he misses the fundamental political reality that drove supporters of legalized abortion to align, at least rhetorically, with the population control movement. Abortion rights had far less support across the political spectrum than did population control. Family planning legislation, often framed as a way of curbing out-of-control growth at home and abroad, attracted bipartisan support from leading politicians in both parties, including a young George H.W. Bush (R-Tex.).

Some abortion rights supporters believed in population control, but many others simply told lawmakers what they wanted to hear. Framing abortion reform as a way to lower illegitimacy rates, cut welfare expenses or stabilize the population seemed more likely to win over legislators than demanding rights for women — especially given overwhelmingly male legislatures.

This is a dark history, but it is not the tidy, simple one that Thomas describes. Many population controllers actually opposed legal abortion or viewed it as irrelevant. They shared the worries of their eugenicist forbears that giving women a choice would not do enough to reduce demographic growth.

More important, many in the population control movement had no interest in eugenics. Cold warriors hoped that curbing demographic growth would prevent developing countries from turning to communism. Environmentalists believed that population control could conserve scarce environmental resources. And feminists believed that population control could facilitate the liberation of women.

The converse was also true: Unlike the synergy of belief conveyed by Thomas, some abortion rights supporters had no use for population rhetoric, viewing it as unethical and counterproductive, regardless of the political benefits. Contrary to what Thomas suggests, these voices grew louder after Roe, when feminists took on more influential roles in major abortion rights organizations. These groups understood that population arguments could smack of coercion — antithetical to their beliefs about choice and freedom — and alienate people of color both in the United States and in developing countries. And feminists increasingly argued that women had a right to abortion regardless of its policy consequences.

The history referenced by Justice Thomas deserves to be better known. It is distressing to realize how recently the United States embraced eugenic goals. Some states, such as North Carolina and Virginia, applied eugenic sterilization laws well into the 1970s. The story of population controllers is messy, and not always one that either side of the abortion debate should celebrate.

It is also true that the reemergence of eugenics is not a pipe dream. Gene editing technologies, along with widespread testing for chromosomal abnormalities earlier in pregnancy and the spread of assisted reproduction, offer parents more power to shape the kind of offspring they bear. These technologies pose deeply difficult ethical and legal questions with which we have just begun to struggle, especially given that they will be contested in the shadow of the ugly history of eugenics in America.

But oversimplifying our painful past will do nothing to advance the conversation. Thomas suggests that the villains have always been the same. But the eugenicists of the past mocked the idea of either a right to choose or a right to life. Scoring political points is no way to wrestle with their true legacy.