What Can Feminists Make of the Eugenicist History of Abortion?

Photo Sarah Whiting

In a footnote to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, Samuel Alito referenced an old right-wing talking point tying abortion advocacy to eugenics. He suggested that some pro-choice advocates were “motivated by a desire to suppress the size of the African American population,” and in dong so echoed Clarence Thomas’s 2019 concurrence in Box v. Planned Parenthood, which stated that abortion restrictions prevent “abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.”

In the wake of the Dobbs ruling, many advocates denied the historical ties between abortion and eugenics. Yet the inconvenient fact remains that early 20th-century abortion rights were frequently articulated in relation to eugenic standards of “unfitness” and “racial betterment” in ways that remain relevant today. Although we may most frequently encounter this history through bad-faith arguments aimed at stripping away reproductive rights, feminists have a responsibility to grapple seriously with the ties between disability, abortion, and eugenics.

Pro-choice advocates have argued that the early abortion movement was directly opposed to eugenic practices (such as forced breeding or sterilization) because its focus was on granting greater agency in family planning — but this argument defines eugenics only by its more extreme measures. Early eugenicists hoped people would join their cause freely and begin reproducing — or abstaining from reproduction — with the aim of “bettering” the population, and feminist abortion advocates used this rhetoric to gain support for their cause.

Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics,” focused on promoting healthier, smarter, and fitter marriages. To Galton, an ideal marriage meant charting familial health, social success, race, and class, and reproducing when it would lead to a “thriving,” successful family. This vein of eugenic scholarship was well received by diverse readers, from fascists to liberals to socialists to anarchists.

Feminist figures, including Margaret Sanger, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Victoria Woodhull, and Helen Keller, used eugenic discourses to argue that women should be empowered to make reproductive choices through education, birth control, and abortion, and thereby benefit the health of the nation. In the magazine Birth Control Review, Margaret Sanger argued that “like the advocates of birth control, the eugenicists, for instance, are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit. … Eugenics without birth control seems to us a house built upon the sands. It is at the mercy of the rising stream of the unfit.”

But whether or not it was billed as eugenics, the idea of the perfectible human was widely accepted. If you have encountered a bumper sticker that says “stupid people shouldn’t breed,” or heard that successful people should have more babies, or that prisoners and immigrants shouldn’t reproduce, or even that someone hopes their biological child will be athletic, attractive, smart, and grant them grandchildren — you have encountered a trickle of everyday eugenic logic. This comparison is not meant to naturalize the eugenics of the early 20th century, but to show that the same logic is still at play outside explicitly eugenic institutions.

Even after the term “eugenics” fell out of popularity, it was the threat of fetal disability that brought abortion back into public debate in the 1960s. The highly publicized case of television personality Sherri Chessen is considered one of the crucial turning points of U.S. abortion rights history. In 1962, she sought an abortion abroad after learning that she had taken thalidomide, a pharmaceutical drug that caused significant fetal disabilities; despite the fact that abortion was illegal in the U.S. (except in rare cases), 52 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll agreed that she had done the right thing. This was crucial to paving the way for Roe v. Wade a decade later.

Today, a person who receives the diagnosis of fetal disability and has access to an abortion must make the choice to terminate or continue the pregnancy in a world where ableist precepts are taken as natural fact and eugenic logic is still embedded in our hopes for the future and our measures of success. A pregnant person is likely to weigh the cost of medical treatment, the difficulty of social acceptance, the additional hours spent learning about the condition and building a medical care network, and the exhaustion from these issues over decades to come. How free is the choice to have an abortion when disability is imagined to mean the end of potential? In a non-ableist world, abortions would still be a part of life. So, how can we create the conditions for reproductive justice such that eugenic logic is completely absent from the equation?

We need to follow calls from people with disabilities for disability justice, accessibility, and care. We need to improve education on issues of disability and fight for policies and cultural practices that would allow us to restructure our relationships to work and family. Imagine, for instance, parenting while feeling well rested and working 30 hours a week or less with a safety net of universal basic income, universal health care, and an expanded network of caregivers.

Additionally, we need to actively reject the assumption that disabled people are disposable. Disabled people were selectively denied life-saving care during the early months of the pandemic based on medical assumptions that they have a lower quality of life. People with disabilities are among those who bear the brunt of limitations to abortion access. Challenging the widely held assumption that some disabled people are “better off dead” or do not deserve agency over their bodies is the most important way of unlearning the effects of eugenics that are still within us.

Rather than interpret the history of abortion and eugenics to limit abortion, we should interrogate the lingering ties between abortion and eugenics and ask ourselves:

How can reproductive justice also be disability justice?

If we attend to the subtleties of eugenic history and current calls for disability justice, we can conceive of pro- choice politics in terms of universal access to dignified choice and dignified life.

Erika Rodriguez (she/they) is the associate director in residence at the Center for Race, Indigeneity, Disability, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Their research focuses on feminist disability studies and early eugenics.