“While denouncing the eugenics movement, one must also recognize that its repudiation by the progressive mainstream signals the rise of a self-centered ethos that is destructive in its own right.”
ccess to abortion and birth control today is justified almost exclusively through the rhetoric of equal rights. Amnesty International insists that “being able to make our own decisions about our health, body, and sexual life is a basic human right.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee concurs. MSI Reproductive Choices, a United Kingdom-based organization that operates abortion clinics in 37 countries, declares itself “motivated by the belief that everyone should have the right to determine their own future.”
Such protestations of egalitarian virtue would have been incomprehensible to the eugenicists who pioneered modern contraceptive methods. As described by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, “birth control is not contraception indiscriminately and thoughtlessly practiced.” Rather, “[it] means the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination, and eventual extirpation of defective stocks…”
Francis Galton, who first coined the term “eugenics,” urged “the improvement of the [white] race by furthering the productivity of the fit by early marriages and the healthful rearing of children.” While women of Anglo-Saxon Protestant extraction were to form large families, their procuring birth control labeled “racial suicide,” the unfit population had to be kept in check. In her 1922 essay “The Pivot of Civilization,” Sanger called for cutting down the “notorious fecundity of feeble-minded women,” lest American society “be faced with the ever-increasing problem of feeble-mindedness, that fertile parent of degeneracy, crime, and pauperism.”
Historian Lothrop Stoddard, who served on the board of directors at Sanger’s American Birth Control League, likewise warned against the spread of “inferior blood” in his 1921 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White-World Supremacy. “Everywhere the better types (on which the future of the race depends) were numerically stationary or dwindling, while conversely, the lower types were gaining ground, their birth-rate showing relatively slight diminution.” Even the Supreme Court took heed of the alleged crisis. Buck v. Bell upheld a Virginia statute mandating compulsory sterilization of citizens with intellectual disabilities. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote that “instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
While Sanger and her contemporaries did not support abortion—only preemptive measures such as sterilization, which were politically more viable at a time when elective abortions were illegal in every state—philosopher Ryan Anderson wrote that they would have celebrated the fact that abortion today is disproportionately practiced by ethnic minorities and other “undesirables.” The reception of Roe v. Wade among modern-day white nationalists offers some indication. Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief at the far-right Counter-Currents Publishing, wrote that “[s]ince trashy and scummy traits are heritable, giving such people access to abortion decreases their representation in future generations.” Echoing Johnson’s argument, one article from the racialist website American Renaissance concluded that barriers to abortion are “dysgenic.”
Rushing to capture the moral high ground, conservatives often found it convenient to ignore the distinctions between the eugenics movement and modern-day abortion advocates. “Whether they personally identify with Sanger’s ideology or not, they continue to carry out her mission, by serving as the leading executioner of our children,” said pro-life activist Benjamin Watson in response to Planned Parenthood’s apology for its past racism. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, one amicus brief filed by Christian groups included a subheading that read, “The Birth Control Movement, Abortion Advocacy, and Eugenics Are All Rooted In Social Darwinism and the Elimination of Undesirable Populations.”
Granted, it makes no difference to a fetus whether his life was taken in the name of racial purity or women’s “right to choose.” Nevertheless, the nuances are critical to unmasking several disturbing trends that have metastasized on the progressive Left.
Today, Planned Parenthood does not push only poor minority women to get abortions. Neither does it demand that elite white women become housewives and conceive children, much less to secure the dominant position of their race. If anything, anti-abortion policies are resisted on the grounds that they allegedly benefit whites, or that they punish whites to a lesser degree than they do people of other races. Writing for Scientific American this past November, gynecologist Biftu Mengesha described the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs as “sit[ting] within the grand plan that this country was built upon—the violent and oppressive maintenance of white supremacy.”
Mengesha’s claim cannot make sense unless the rationale for abortion has become to offer women regardless of race or social class an equal means to defeat fertility, which is seen as an obstacle to upward mobility as opposed to the lifeblood of one’s kind. Abortion’s popularity today is best explained by one Paxton Smith, a high school valedictorian who used her graduation speech to denounce Texas’s six-week abortion ban. “I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail…then my hopes and dreams and aspirations for my future will no longer matter.”
Moreover, whatever “hopes and dreams” one may have are beyond reproach. Whereas most eugenicists condemned sexual indiscretion, progressives today preach increasingly experimental practices, their support for contraception forming part of a broader tendency to reject tradition and filter life through the lens of choice. When asked why she began producing amateur pornography, actress Bella Thorne framed the issue as one of personal taste: “How can it change your life for the worse and the better? How far are you willing to go, and how far do you want to go? You can be me, or this talented girl from Montana, and OnlyFans can change your life—if you want it to, of course.”
It did not occur to her the possibility that not all choices are equally dignified. This radical non-judgmentalism extends to other issues. More than half a century after the 1965 “Moynihan Report” first chronicled the decline of stable families among black Americans, cohabitation and childbirth in the absence of marriage have been utterly de-stigmatized. Progressive commentators portray as racist any attempt to highlight the adverse sociological effects of single parenthood. Drug use, obesity, prostitution, sadistic fetishes, and even assisted suicide have all been hailed as acts of “empowerment.” To suggest that such conduct might inflict genuine harm is to invite swift backlash from the defenders of autonomy and consent. “It’s your life. It’s your choice” is the motto of Canada’s euthanasia program.
Eugenics was once considered progressive. It was endorsed by influential voices on the Left, including Jack London, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. After all, the eugenics movement reflected a view that humanity could be scientifically managed and improved via top-down social engineering. To quote British socialist Sidney Webb, “[n]o consistent eugenicist can be a ‘Laisser Faire’ [sic] individualist unless he throws up the game in despair. He must interfere, interfere, interfere!”
Like many Progressive Era reforms, eugenics also sought to trade individual liberties for some misguided notion of a greater good. In Buck v. Bell, Justice Holmes found it odd not to “call upon those who already sap the strength of the State” to make the “lesser sacrifices” of undergoing sterilization, especially if one were to save America from being “swamped with incompetence.” Similarly, the Supreme Court in Muller v. Oregon affirmed a law limiting the maximum number of hours a woman could contract to work for on the grounds that maternal health is vital to the “strength and vigor of the race.”
Since progressives today prioritize personal choice, they have turned against eugenics, but only as a matter of state policy. Caitlin Fendley, writing for The Washington Post, reminded her readers “not to reignite the darker forces behind population control” that eugenics represented because “any efforts to curb the population must be voluntary.” Would aborting fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome no longer register among those “darker forces” if done voluntarily? Such was the question Justice Clarence Thomas raised in his opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Inc., which criticized the Supreme Court for declining to review the Seventh Circuit’s invalidation of an Indiana statute banning abortions performed solely on the basis of the fetus’s race, sex, or disability.
“Eugenics was about state control of human breeding,” said economist Thomas Leonard. “Today it’s very different. We leave the decision to parents and medical professionals, and that makes all the difference.” Would he encourage medical professionals conscientiously to defy a white patient’s request to terminate her mixed-race fetus? If not, one wonders whether Leonard only opposes eugenics to the extent that it stood against unlimited individual choice.
While denouncing the eugenics movement, one must also recognize that its repudiation by the progressive mainstream signals the rise of a self-centered ethos that is destructive in its own right. If eugenics still exist, it is because people choose it.
Guzi He is a J.D. candidate at the American University Washington College of Law. He holds a B.A. in Government from the College of William and Mary and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.