How the Eugenics Movement Made Race-Based Abortions Normal


Published June 24, 2022

American Greatness

In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened a birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, marking the first major endeavor of her career in social activism, which culminated in 1942 when she founded Planned Parenthood. Contrary to what many might assume from witnessing Planned Parenthood operate today as the nation’s largest abortion business, Sanger wasn’t an abortion activist.

Instead, she founded Planned Parenthood as part of a crusade for contraception, which she believed would be an important element of social progress. Unlike feminists later in the 20th century who demanded birth control as a means of liberating women from the supposed tyranny of the female body, Sanger and her allies had a more nefarious angle. It was the Progressive Era, and elite progressive leaders were advocating a frightening campaign: Anglo-Saxon–oriented eugenic policy as a means of reshaping the U.S. population to look, in their view, more ideally American.

In her 1919 essay “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” Sanger couched her argument for birth control in the context and aims of the eugenics movement. “Elimination of the unfit,” Sanger argued, could not be fully achieved without widespread access to birth control. Sanger later elaborated on what she meant by “unfit,” describing the link as she saw it between birth control and progress: “If we are to develop in America a new race with a racial soul, we must keep the birth rate within the scope of our ability to understand as well as to educate. We must not encourage reproduction beyond our capacity to assimilate our numbers so as to make the coming generation into such physically fit, mentally capable, socially alert individuals as are the ideal of a democracy.”

While Sanger and her fellow 20th-century eugenicists were not abortion advocates themselves, they no doubt would be pleased by the way in which the widespread acceptance of abortion has furthered their goal of reducing “undesirable” parts of the population. 

The eugenics movement of the early 20th century was full of elite thinkers who advocated contraception and sterilization as a means of minimizing the reproduction of unwanted minorities: non-white Americans, the poor, and those deemed mentally disabled or otherwise unfit. Clarence Little—a university president and renowned genetic researcher—served on Planned Parenthood’s founding board and believed increased availability of birth control would help protect “Yankee stock,” or what Sanger would call those of “unmixed native white parentage.” “The feebleminded are notoriously prolific in reproduction,” Sanger described the problem as she saw it in Woman and the New Race

Activists such as Sanger, Little, Lothrap Stoddard, and Havelock Ellis focused their crusade on widespread contraception—some supported sterilization, too—which they hoped would reduce the birth rate among populations they viewed as undesirable. These thinkers weren’t seizing eugenics as a helpful rhetorical tool for promoting birth control; it was the other way around. Birth control and sterilization—and subsequently abortion—were the means by which they wanted to achieve their eugenic goals, which were their priority. This disturbing mindset proved to be highly influential with some of our foremost institutions. 

In 1927, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law allowing the forced sterilization of the institutionalized, supposedly to protect the “health of the patient and the welfare of society.” Ruling that the state was within its rights to forcibly sterilize Carrie Buck—a patient at a mental hospital whom Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to as a “feeble minded woman”—Holmes famously wrote that laws such as Virginia’s prevented the nation from “being swamped with incompetence.” “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Holmes added. In a letter to his friend Harold Laski that same year, Holmes wrote that he had “delivered an opinion upholding the constitutionality of a state law for sterilizing imbeciles the other day—and felt that I was getting near the first principle of real reform.” 

Though the formal eugenics movement in the United States began to die out by the 1940s, its goals are still being achieved today, propelled in large part by the way in which legal abortion has led to the disproportionate extermination of non-white and disabled children. In a 2009 interview with the New York Times Magazine, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described Roe as having been a decision about population control, “particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” It is unclear whether Ginsburg was endorsing this eugenic motivation or merely describing it—though in 2014 Ginsburg told Elle in the context of abortion that “it makes no sense as a national policy to promote birth only among poor people.” Either way, Ginsburg correctly realized that, at least for some, the legalization of abortion would function as the next tool in a larger campaign to reduce the population, particularly the population of undesirables. 

This is evident in how today’s white supremacists embrace abortion, cheering that it eliminates non-white children at a disproportionate rate, thus limiting the growth of the nonwhite population. White supremacist Richard Spencer has argued that abortion is essential in bringing about his ideal, racially homogenous American people. He supports abortion because, as he puts it, “the people who are having abortions are generally very often black or Hispanic or from very poor circumstances.” White women, Spencer notes, avail themselves of abortion “when you have a situation like Down Syndrome”— an acceptable use of abortion, in his view. Meanwhile, Spencer says, “the unintelligent and blacks and Hispanics . . . use abortion as birth control,” something that in his view ought to be celebrated.

In the view of modern-day racists, the pro-life position is “dysgenic,” by which they mean that protecting babies from the lethal violence of abortion will harm later generations by allowing supposedly undesirable characteristics to continue to be passed on. In Spencer’s white-supremacist Radix Journal, Aylmer Fisher wrote: “The only ones who can’t [avoid unwanted pregnancy] are the least intelligent and responsible members of society: women who are disproportionately Black, Hispanic, and poor.” Spencer and his racist ilk make this hateful argument because non-white and low-income women are indeed the ones who most often have abortions today. 

Margaret Sanger’s disgusting views on race and eugenics are impossible to deny. So much so that in 2021, amid broader racial tensions in the United States, Planned Parenthood finally attempted to distance itself from its founder. In a New York Times op-ed, Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson wrote that the group was “done making excuses for [its] founder” and that it was prepared to “reckon with Margaret Sanger’s association with white supremacist groups and eugenics.” 

This move came nearly a year after Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, one of the group’s largest affiliates, denounced Sanger’s racism and removed her name from its flagship clinic. “The removal of Margaret Sanger’s name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood’s contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color,” Karen Seltzer, the chair of the New York affiliate’s board, said in a statement. It would have been better had they dissolved the whole organization. Today’s Planned Parenthood perpetuates Sanger’s racially discriminatory beliefs, wittingly or not. 

Abortion Harms Equality and Choice 

“We are committed to confronting any white supremacy in our own organization, and across the movement for reproductive freedom,” Johnson wrote in her op-ed. But Planned Parenthood’s move was too little, too late. For one thing, pro-lifers have been pointing out Sanger’s racist views for quite some time, greeted with radio silence from Planned Parenthood. From 1966 until 2015, the group gave out its highest honor, the annual “Margaret Sanger Award,” to “recognize leadership, excellence, and outstanding contributions to the reproductive health and rights movement.” Both Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi have been recipients. 

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood—and the abortion industry at large—continue to operate in a way that would thrill the eugenicist proponents of contraception. Due in large part to Planned Parenthood’s abortion business, the past half-century of abortion has deepened the effects of racial inequality in the United States, and Planned Parenthood profits from that reality. As former NFL tight end Benjamin Watson has put it: “The same Sanger they [Planned Parenthood leaders] claim to disavow would applaud their efforts and results, as a disproportionate percentage of black children have been killed in Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinics.” 

According to research from Ryan Bomberger’s Radiance Foundation, nearly 80 percent of Planned Parenthood’s clinics are located within walking distance of neighborhoods occupied predominantly by black and Hispanic residents. While abortion providers and advocates insist that this is a service to lower-income and minority women who need access to affordable health care, abortion statistics tell a different story. Despite constituting only 13 percent of the female population, black women represent well over one-third of all abortions in the United States each year. Black women are five times more likely than white women to obtain abortions, Hispanic women are twice as likely, and abortions are highly concentrated among low-income women. Shockingly, according to vital statistics data, in recent years more black babies were aborted than were born alive in New York City. Between the years 2012 and 2016, black mothers in New York City had 136,426 abortions and gave birth to only 118,127 babies. Among white, Asian, and Hispanic women, births far surpassed abortions. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2019 black women accounted for the largest percentage of all abortions in the United States, at 38.4 percent. White women had the lowest abortion rate, with 6.6 abortions per 1,000 women, while black women had the highest, with 23.8 abortions per 1,000 women. For every 1,000 live births to black women, there were 386 abortions, whereas for every 1,000 births to white women, there were 117 abortions. And the true disparities are likely even greater, considering that a number of states refuse to report demographic breakdowns in their abortion data to the CDC, including abortion-friendly ones such as California and New York. 

These disparities can’t be chalked up to merely a matter of unfortunate differences in financial status that lead to greater reliance on abortion. As the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute reports, “At every income level, black women have higher abortion rates than whites or Hispanics, except for women below the poverty line, where Hispanic women have slightly higher rates than black women.” 

The problem is so severe that black pro-life leaders have founded groups to put particular focus on reducing abortion rates among black women. Christina Bennett, a pro-life activist who works with pregnant women in need, revealed in a 2020 interview that black women in her community don’t think about abortion the way the national abortion-rights movement does: “Abortion supporters talk about things like ‘reproductive justice’ or ‘reproductive freedom,’ but this language doesn’t trickle down. The women having the abortions aren’t thinking in this language. It’s really the elite, privileged women who push this message that abortion is health care.” 

Bennett told the story of a pro-choice group that created candles decorated to say “Abortions are magical” to hand out to volunteers. “If I was to take those to the inner-city abortion clinic in Hartford and try to hand them out, the girls actually getting abortions wouldn’t want those candles. That’s not their reality. They’re getting an abortion because they have to feed their kids. They already have another child at home or they’re thinking about how their man is going to leave if they have that kid,” Bennett said. Abortion among black and Hispanic women isn’t driven by female empowerment and the celebration of “choice” but by the crushing limitations of poverty and lack of meaningful options or alternatives. But, rather than provide tangible assistance to help these women choose life, pro-abortion activists actively oppose groups that do provide that assistance, further fueling a skewed race ratio when it comes to abortion. 

This reality is why racists embrace abortion: whether or not Planned Parenthood and its supporters notice or admit it, abortion has led to a disproportionate reduction of non-white populations in the United States. Perhaps in an effort to distract from this reality, abortion-rights supporters have begun to argue that the modern pro-life movement is nothing more than a smokescreen for racism. 

“White Supremacists oppose abortion because they fear it’ll reduce the number of white infants and thus contribute to what they fear as non-white ‘replacement,’” tweeted Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe in 2019. “Never underestimate the way these issues and agendas are linked. This turns ‘intersectionality’ on its head,” Tribe added. 

In a 2020 GQ article titled “The Anti-Abortion Movement Was Always Built on Lies,” journalist Laura Bassett advanced the incoherent thesis that Republicans before Ronald Reagan were pro-abortion because they were racist and that Republicans after Reagan became pro-life also because they were racist. 

Just after the Supreme Court oral arguments in Dobbs, columnist and professor Noah Smith tweeted, “Who’s going to be the first to let conservatives know that since people of color are disproportionately high users of abortion, banning abortion will hasten the ‘Great Replacement,’” insinuating that, if pro-lifers realized this, they’d cease opposing abortion. But pro-lifers have been decrying the disproportionate abortion rate for decades. 

New York University law professor Melissa Murray repeated a similar error in an interview with Slate: “Abortion restrictions were fueled by the fear that white women were using abortion and, as a consequence, were not having as many children, and the white race was about to be overwhelmed by African Americans and immigrants.” 

But the link between abortion and white supremacists’ concerns about “non-white replacement” works in precisely the opposite way. The connection between abortion and “replacement” is why white supremacists have long supported abortion, applauding the sad reality that minority women tend to abort their children at disproportionate rates. 

The womb is one of the most dangerous places for a black American. White supremacists celebrate this tragic reality while progressive elites cheer on the laws that perpetuate it—and both groups attack the pro-lifers who seek to ameliorate it. 

Lethal Discrimination

In addition to the racial aspect of eugenic abortion, there is discrimination on the basis of sex and disability. But the pro-abortion movement doesn’t want to acknowledge this reality, let alone do anything to stop it. Today’s abortion-rights activists typically defend abortion by emphasizing the primacy of female autonomy, saying that no matter her reason, a woman must have access to abortion—and, moreover, that we can’t so much as ask a woman why she’s choosing it. 

This unflinching logic takes abortion defenders to some especially unfortunate places. While every abortion is an unjust act of lethal violence against the unborn child, regardless of the mother’s reasons, there is something startling about the reality that some women choose abortion precisely because of a specific unwanted characteristic of their unborn child. Yet many of the loudest progressive voices who decry sex discrimination and disability discrimination against adults remain silent when it comes to discrimination against unborn children based on sex or disability—or worse, they actively support these types of abortions. 

In some parts of the world, abortions chosen because the child is of an unwanted sex—usually a girl—are common. A 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that over a span of about 50 years, more than 23 million girls are now missing as the result of discriminatory abortion. Researchers from the National University of Singapore, the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health found that China (11.9 million) and India (10.6 million) account for more than 90 percent of these missing girls. 

Especially when the Chinese government was enforcing a “one-child policy”—now expanded to a three-child allowance—there was an incentive for families to abort their unborn daughters to leave room for highly prized sons. These two countries have the most imbalanced sex ratios at birth, which, the authors argue, is “a direct consequence of sex-selective abortion, driven by the coexistence of son preference, readily available technology of prenatal sex determination, and fertility decline.” 

Despite public outcry, it appears that these troubling trends will persist. In a 2021 study, the same researchers predicted that there will be between 5.7 million and 22.1 million girls missing through the end of the century. While we don’t have much data on this practice in the United States—in part because abortion supporters oppose requiring women to disclose the reasons for their abortions—political economist Nicholas Eberstadt argues that there have been alarming developments in this regard in the Western world. In his 2011 article “The Global War against Baby Girls,” Eberstadt wrote: 

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, these gender disparities were due largely to sharp increases in higher-parity SRBs [sex ratios at birth], strongly suggesting that sex-selective abortions were the driver. The American and British cases also point to the possibility that sex-selective abortion may be common to other subpopulations in developed or less developed societies, even if these do not affect the overall SRB for each country as a whole.

Meanwhile, there is abundant evidence that women often choose abortion when their unborn child is diagnosed via prenatal testing with a disorder or sickness. Parents and doctors tend to promote abortion in these circumstances, claiming that it is more compassionate to end a child’s life than condemn him to a life of suffering. 

Indeed, abortion supporters often portray abortion as a solution in cases when unborn children are diagnosed with genetic disorders such as Down syndrome. In 2017, CBS News reported that Iceland was leading the world in “eradicating Down syndrome births.” The article made it sound as though the country had pioneered a cure for the chromosomal disorder, when in fact the “solution” was far simpler: using prenatal testing and abortion to all but exterminate children diagnosed with Down syndrome. About 85 percent of expectant mothers in Iceland choose to receive the prenatal test, and virtually 100 percent of women who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis choose abortion. Just two children with Down syndrome are born in Iceland each year, often as the result of faulty testing. Rather than eradicating Down syndrome, Iceland has eradicated people with Down syndrome. 

No one would think doctors had cured cancer if they began killing every person diagnosed with the disease, but abortion is fast becoming the norm for children diagnosed with disabilities in the womb. Denmark is much like Iceland, with a 98 percent abortion rate for babies diagnosed with Down syndrome. In the United Kingdom, 90 percent of pregnant mothers who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis choose to abort. In Europe as a whole, somewhere in the realm of 92 percent of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. In the United States, it’s somewhere between 61 percent and 93 percent—a range researchers narrowed to a “weighted mean” of 67 percent—according to one meta-study of Down syndrome abortion rates between 1995 and 2011. 

This practice is publicly supported by abortion proponents, many of whom become even more supportive of abortion in cases when parents have received an unfortunate fetal diagnosis. In 2018, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus penned a piece announcing that she “would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome” and defending the right of women to do so. “I can say without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been, I would have terminated [my] pregnancies had the testing come back positive,” she wrote. “That was not the child I wanted.” This further confirms the argument that women seek abortion not merely to avoid the burden of pregnancy but to ensure the death of the child. 

But condemning a child to death is not acceptable, no matter the reason. It’s neither an acceptable means of ensuring that parents get the child they want nor of preventing a particular type of suffering. No parent gets the child she wants. Every child is a unique, unrepeatable gift, and all children deserve to be welcomed and cherished for who they are regardless of whether they are “perfect” or “disabled.” In reality, no child is “perfect,” and children with disabilities aren’t any less valuable or lovable than children without them. Likewise, every human life entails some suffering. Intentionally killing a person who suffers or who might suffer doesn’t solve that unfortunate reality. Parents have obligations to love and care for their children, not to decide for their children that their suffering might be too great to allow them to live. 

Jerome Lejeune, the French geneticist who discovered the chromosomal basis for Down syndrome, once offered this perspective: “It cannot be denied that the price of these diseases is high—in suffering for the individual and in burdens for society. Not to mention what parents suffer! But we can assign a value to that price: It is precisely what a society must pay to remain fully human.” The truly human response to suffering is compassion—to suffer with another—not to try to eliminate suffering by eliminating the one who suffers. 

But we shouldn’t overstate the amount of “suffering” experienced by people with Down syndrome. While they face a different set of challenges than those who do not have trisomy, by all accounts they can lead fulfilling, happy lives. According to one study, nearly 99 percent of individuals with Down syndrome reported being happy with their lives, 97 percent said they liked who they are, and 96 percent said they like how they look. They also bring tremendous joy to their families, friends, and neighbors.

Not only do people with disabilities lead happy, fulfilling lives, but the best evidence suggests that at least some of the time, prenatal tests diagnosing disorders can be wrong. In the case of testing for rare and serious genetic disorders, those tests can be wrong in as many as 90 percent of cases, according to a January 2022 New York Times report. How many mothers have killed perfectly healthy children because a faulty test told them their child “was not the child [they] wanted”? 

Though abortion is often presented as a solution to a fatal prenatal diagnosis, many courageous parents nevertheless eschew abortion, knowing that directly killing their child isn’t a solution to illness or suffering. For instance, many parents who receive a diagnosis of anencephaly—a neural tube defect in which parts of a baby’s brain and skull might be missing—reject abortion and spend whatever time they can with their newborn, though the condition often results in a child dying shortly after birth. 

Even when parents receive a tragic diagnosis for their unborn child that ends up being correct, such as a diagnosis suggesting that their child might die shortly after birth, a 2015 study suggests that parents who rejected abortion in those cases had better psychological outcomes. Research from 2018 in the Journal of Clinical Ethics, meanwhile, found that close to 98 percent of parents who received a diagnosis of a “life-limiting fetal condition” and chose not to abort their child reported being happy with their decision. 

While pregnant, Sonia Morales was told that her unborn child had anencephaly, and she was informed that most parents in her position choose abortion. But Morales continued her pregnancy and gave birth to her daughter Angela, who, despite her condition, lived until she was just a few months shy of her fourth birthday. Morales said she never considered abortion “because I already loved my child, and I knew I had to defend her right to life. My love for her didn’t change after the diagnosis . . . I was not the one who created the heartbeat, and I was not going to be the one ending her life.” After her daughter’s death, Morales said she was grateful for her “extra time” with Angela, and she believes her daughter’s life might give hope to parents who receive a similar diagnosis. 

While some who support abortion in cases when a child is diagnosed with a disability might be motivated by sincere, if misguided, compassion, this worldview is undergirded by the evil logic of abortion, which insists that those in a position of power—in the case of abortion, the doctor and the pregnant mother—get to decide whether another human being’s life is worth living. This is why abortion-rights groups are swift to oppose pro-life laws that would prohibit abortions chosen after a pregnant woman receives a Down syndrome diagnosis. 

Though the United Kingdom limits elective abortions later in pregnancy, a woman may obtain an abortion at any point until birth if her child is diagnosed with “such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped,” a category that includes nonfatal disabilities such as Down syndrome, clubfoot, or cleft palate. Though lawmakers, pro-life activists, and the disability-rights movement in the U.K. have fought to amend this law to protect unborn children diagnosed with these conditions, they have thus far been unsuccessful. 

Here in the United States, the abortion industry has rabidly fought every pro-life effort to pass laws prohibiting discriminatory abortion. In 2016, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky went all the way to the Supreme Court to block an Indiana law that, in part, forbade abortionists from knowingly performing abortions when the reason the mother sought an abortion was to lethally discriminate against her child based on sex, race, or disability. Opposing a similar ban on discriminatory abortions in Missouri, Planned Parenthood’s local affiliate portrayed the bill as a backdoor ban on abortion: “This bill is about one thing only: extremist politicians’ determination to eliminate Missourians’ access to safe and legal abortion. Abortion is a deeply personal and often complex decision that must be left to women, in consultation with their families, faith, and healthcare providers. This bill inserts the state into the exam room in an effort to restrict access to abortion.” Planned Parenthood also asserted that the bill “would threaten women’s lives and health by restricting abortion access for women who need them.”

When Ohio passed a bill banning the discriminatory abortion of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome, abortion-rights advocates immediately took action against it. Planned Parenthood activists lobbied against the bill at the state house. The Center for Reproductive Rights called it “a dangerous attempt by anti-choice politicians to pit the disability rights community against the reproductive rights community.” The ACLU of Ohio said the law “does nothing to improve the lives of people with disabilities, nor does it increase their access to health care or other services, nor does it educate a woman and her family about having a child with a disability.” NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio executive director Kellie Copeland said, “This bill prevents a woman from having honest conversations about her options with her physician following a complicated medical diagnosis,” while her deputy, Jamie Miracle, said it “callously disregards the unique circumstances that surround each woman’s pregnancy.” 

Neither Planned Parenthood nor any other abortion-rights group has provided evidence that women’s health ever requires aborting an unborn child due to his or her race, sex, or genetic disorder. Planned Parenthood condemns sex-, race-, and disability-based discrimination in every other context, except when it occurs in the womb. Abortion proponents not only refuse to support laws protecting unborn children from discrimination based on race, sex, or disability, but they insist that being permitted to discriminate is a necessary component of “women’s health care,” and they take legal action to ensure that women can continue to choose abortion even for these reasons. 

The debate over fetal anti-discrimination abortion laws exposes the frighteningly consistent logic of the pro-abortion position: if abortion supporters were to admit that, in some cases, a woman might be choosing abortion for the wrong reasons—to admit, in other words, that some abortions are unacceptable—they would open themselves up to a debate about which reasons are good and which aren’t. Of course, it is just as morally reprehensible to kill a healthy unborn child as it is to kill one who has a disability, or to kill a child of the “right” sex as it is to kill one of the “wrong” sex. But their response to these discriminatory abortions illustrates how far abortion supporters will go to ensure that the law never protects unborn children, no matter the circumstances.

Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., is the author of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment and Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom. He is the St. John Paul II Teaching Fellow in Social Thought at the University of Dallas He lives on a small family farm in Virginia with his wife and three children. Alexandra DeSanctis, a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a staff writer at National Review. A graduate of Notre Dame and a former William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute, she lives in Northern Virginia with her husband.

Photo: Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0


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