EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story suggested that the author J.D. Vance lamented a falloff in white births; he was actually talking about American births.
Last fall, speaking to a far-right Austrian magazine, the Iowa Republican congressman Steve King succinctly laid out his theory of Western decline. The problem, he suggested, was a demographic born at the nexus of reproduction and immigration. “If we continue to abort our babies and import a replacement for them in the form of young violent men, we are supplanting our culture, our civilization,” King said.
King had already called attention to himself the previous year for retweeting a cartoon that depicted the nativist Dutch party leader Geert Wilders as a bulwark against invading Muslim hordes. “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” King wrote.
This month, King was back in the headlines. Speaking to a conservative group outside Des Moines about his support for a total ban on abortion, he asked: “What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?”
King’s questions were startlingly direct in their implication that sexual violence, at least if it led to childbirth, was a good thing. His frank misogyny almost overshadowed another implication of his words: When King refers to world population, he’s not talking about everybody.
King is only the most notorious of the politicians who have recently justified their opposition to abortion by linking it to their anti-immigration politics. Conservative lawmakers and right-wing vigilantes alike have adopted a seemingly new language for describing their antiabortion stance: the white nationalist discourse of the “great replacement,” a conspiracy theory that holds that nonwhite immigrants are demographically “replacing” whites throughout the West.
For reproductive-rights supporters in the United States, it’s long been easy to see the Republican Party’s hard-line antiabortion politics as a kind of grotesque hypocrisy. How can a political body that has aligned itself against school lunches and for machine guns claim to support “life?” This juxtaposition has been particularly cruel over the past year, as revelations about the imprisonment of migrant children in concentration camps have coincided with a wave of draconian antiabortion legislation. (Just last week, a federal appeals court approved Trump administration rules cutting off federal funds from health-care providers that offer abortions or even discuss the procedure with patients, effectively slashing the budget of organizations like Planned Parenthood.) But understanding this confluence as ironic can actually mislead us. In fact, as King and his white nationalist allies have become increasingly comfortable admitting, state crackdowns on reproductive and immigrant rights are inextricably linked.
Well over a century ago in the United States and elsewhere, fears about immigration and other forms of racial “contamination” became the explicit basis for the curtailing of reproductive freedoms. From Theodore Roosevelt’s United States to Nazi Germany to the ultranationalist regimes that dot contemporary Europe, governments have alleged that immigrants — or others considered inferior — are multiplying too quickly while white women are failing to reproduce. Notoriously, they have often used this claim to justify antinatalist policies intended to limit the reproduction of groups they deem unfit. But they have been equally obsessed with the attempt to enlarge “desirable” populations through pronatalist policies designed to ensure certain women bear children — including laws that restrict contraception and reproduction across the board.
Like their eugenicist forebears, today’s increasingly visible white nationalists “are obsessed with falling birthrates, and by extension they are obsessed with the recruitment — and total control — of women’s wombs,” as the writer Mona Eltahawy recently put it. They have latched onto antiabortion extremism in an attempt to bolster white population growth, while aiming to restrict the growth of nonwhite populations through campaigns of terror against immigrants. In some cases, antiabortion politics provide cover for white nationalist sentiments, allowing sympathizers to speak broadly about “population” rather than race, even as they value some unborn lives over others.
In the United States since the 1970s, the antiabortion movement has taken on a life of its own, obscuring this history until its sudden reappearance in the national spotlight. But the connection between immigration and reproduction was never lost on the movement’s white nationalist fringe — nor should it be lost on supporters of reproductive rights.
In the late 19th century, states across the United States banned abortion and contraception after extensive lobbying from groups, including the American Medical Association, that claimed white Americans were in the process of committing what would come to be known as race suicide. Adherents to this eugenic fantasy, ultimately including such prominent figures as Roosevelt, blamed both women who failed to bear children and immigrants diluting the gene pool for what they feared was the end of white dominance in the United States. As historian Leslie Reagan has noted, “White male patriotism demanded that maternity be enforced among white Protestant women.” The Catholic church, too, joined forces with eugenicists against birth control advocates. Over the next several decades, U.S. borders would gradually close.
Fascist regimes took these ideas and policies to their logical extreme, while also promising to reestablish patriarchal authority: “Kinder, Kirche, Küche” — children, church, kitchen — as per a 19th-century German slogan Hitler adapted during his rise to power. Nazis employed both pronatalist (or “positive”) eugenic practices designed to propagate the Aryan population and antinatalist (or “negative”) ones aimed at keeping the Jewish population down. “Nazi doctrine, founded on the distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ life, enforced selective breeding by increasing penalties for abortions and prohibiting birth control,” the German feminist scholar Claudia Koonz wrote in a landmark study of women under Nazi rule. In the years just before the concentration camps, the imposition of strict penalties on “Aryan” women seeking abortions — which would eventually come to include the death penalty — and the forced sterilization of Jewish women were twin facets of the same strategy.
Antiabortion activists in the United States have long attempted to invert the historical relationship between eugenics and reproductive rights, suggesting those who favor reproductive rights are the real eugenicists. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, recently called abortion “an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation,” despite the lack of evidence that women of color are being encouraged to have unwanted abortions, or that practices like sex selection are happening in the United States on a discernible scale. Meanwhile, a near-total abortion ban passed in Alabama in spring included language claiming that abortion was a larger-scale genocide than the Holocaust — a sinister tactic in the antiabortion arsenal that simultaneously links these unrelated phenomena and plays down the horrors of the Shoah.
In reality, sterilization — not abortion — has always been the technology of choice for governments seeking to keep populations down, for the obvious reason that it can be administered en masse and that its effects are permanent. Millions of third-world women were sterilized during the Cold War under U.S.-backed global health programs, as delusions of race suicide gave way to anxieties about a “population bomb,” as the best-selling popular science writer Paul Ehrlich put it, set off by overly fertile women in the global south. In the United States, sterilizations peaked during the 1970s, overwhelmingly administered to women of color, often poor or in prison; women seeking aid from the welfare system were often pressured to undergo the procedure as a condition for receiving benefits. In an especially perverse twist, the same population of women undergoing forced sterilization was effectively barred from abortion care after the passage of the Hyde amendment in 1976, which prohibits Medicaid from covering the cost of abortions for low-income women. (An entirely different system applied to middle-class white women, who were deterred from voluntary sterilization even when they sought it out.)
While abortion access itself is in no way an expression of eugenic ideology, mainstream reproductive rights organizations for too long made a truce — and even found common cause — with supporters of eugenics. Margaret Sanger, the Planned Parenthood founder who has proved a useful target for antiabortion activists, first rose to prominence as a socialist feminist and public health nurse who placed “voluntary motherhood” for working-class women at the center of her agenda. Initially, as the scholar Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci notes, Sanger had little patience for the eugenicists she described as “masculine ‘race suicide’ fanatics,” nor were they keen on the notion that women should be able to access birth control of their own volition. But hoping to legitimize her cause in the 1920s, Sanger sought the support of eugenicists and adopted their anti-immigrant views. The association lasted decades. In the 1960s, an ophthalmologist named John Tanton, alarmed about overpopulation, established Planned Parenthood clinics in northern Michigan. Tanton would go on to become a father of the contemporary anti-immigration movement.
But those developments are just one part of the story. The reproductive justice movement led by women of color has long argued that the struggle for abortion rights should not be framed as one side of a metaphysical battle between the values of “life” and “choice.” Instead, the right not to bear children — including the right to terminate a pregnancy — should be recognized as one aspect of women’s bodily autonomy, inalienable but also inextricable from the right to bear children, and to the resources necessary to parent in a safe and healthy environment. It took the work of feminist movements around the world to begin separating reproductive rights from population policy — ground we now seem to be losing.
The battle to center women in reproductive politics is being fought today as the language of race suicide has come back in full force among right-wing nationalists. Earlier this month in El Paso, a white nationalist mass shooter is believed to have left a statement rationalizing killing as an act of resistance against the immigrants he claimed were replacing white Americans. He named as a predecessor Brenton Tarrant, who is accused of killing 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Tarrant’s manifesto opened by repeating a single line summing up his justification for murder: “It’s the birthrates.”
Contemporary pronatalist campaigns that draw on similar anxieties have already been put into practice elsewhere in the world. Italy, for instance, created a Ministry for Policies on the Family in 2007 to address an alleged crisis of falling birthrates and increased migration. “This is a country that is dying from low birthrates, from the aging of the population, from a migratory flow so massive that it renders integration difficult since there is no longer an Italian society into which non-EU immigrants can integrate,” the country’s Undersecretary of the Family proclaimed the next year. “If this is the trend, in two or three generations, Italians will disappear.” Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government offered “baby bonuses” to mothers of multiple children; only European citizens were eligible to apply. (Children born in Italy to undocumented migrants are not granted Italian citizenship at birth.) Although abortion remains legal in Italy, it has been made widely inaccessible. While Italian women are castigated for being insufficiently fertile, migrant women are accused of having both too many children and too many abortions.
Variations on this phenomenon can also be seen in countries with right-wing governments outside the coordinates of white nationalism. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has advocated for young women to be trained as “well-educated future mothers,” encouraging Turkish Muslim women to have at least three children and discouraging them from the use of birth control; in 2012, his government limited the availability of Caesarean sections, on the grounds that the procedure makes it difficult for women to give birth multiple times. Such measures are necessary, Erdogan has suggested, in part because families from “the terrorist group in Turkey” — an apparent reference to the country’s Kurdish minority — “have at least 10 to 15 children.” Here, too, abortion, which Erdogan has equated with “murder” and has tried to prohibit, is technically legal, but impossible for many women to access.
The contours of the abortion debate in the United States can make these dynamics harder to see. Explicit pronatalism itself has largely been privatized and stripped of its most overt ideological markers. While government-sponsored subway ads in Poland encourage citizens to “breed like rabbits,” in the United States marketing campaigns for parenthood are more likely to come from purveyors of assisted reproductive technologies and other industries that market to well-off women, warning of biological clocks and inventing new standards of motherhood.
As border controls tighten, though, the links between pronatalism and nativism have once again become visible. Inspired by Steve King’s admiring remark about Geert Wilders, Ayla Stewart, creator of a popular white nationalist blog called Wife with a Purpose, issued a “white baby challenge” that went viral in alt-right circles; the mother of six asked audience members “to have as many white babies as I have contributed.” As replacement discourse enters the conservative mainstream, talk of birthrates comes along with it.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that states first banned abortion in the late 19th century. Some had done so earlier; a collective trend to ban it began later. The story also said that lobbying groups like the American Medical Association pointed to “race suicide” as a reason for the bans. The ideology behind this campaign was present, but that language did not become common until later.]