Historical essay
The Eugenicists on Abortion

The Eugenicists on Abortion

Clarence Thomas recently issued a twenty-page opinion on the Supreme Court decision Box v. Planned Parenthood that went viral because he drew on Margaret Sanger, founder of the first birth control clinic in the U.S., and her connection to eugenics in order to argue that abortion is and historically has been a tool to control the reproductive lives of women of color. The opinion has already been critiqued for getting the history of eugenics wrong; for suggesting, if taken to its logical conclusion, that birth control should also be outlawed; for conflating the history of birth control with the history of abortion; and for ignoring that the history of forced sterilizations went hand-in-hand with the movement to outlaw abortion.

Cover of the July 1919 issue of Margaret Sanger’s “Birth Control Review.” Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It also gets another major point wrong: eugenicists were, for the most part, adamantly anti-abortion. Thomas acknowledges that Margaret Sanger was in fact anti-abortion. However, he doesn’t explain that in taking this position, she fell in line with all the leading eugenicists of the day. In fact, racist arguments were at the foundation of many laws that made the procedure illegal in every state. As the nineteenth-century medical doctor Horatio Storer, who led the fight in outlawing abortion in the U.S., argued in 1866 in reference to the newly annexed “open” territories in the west and the recently emancipated south, “Shall they be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question that our own women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.” Storer led the campaign to outlaw abortion and convince other medical doctors (mostly men) to follow suit by instilling the fear that it was primarily white women with means who were having abortions, and that because of their practices, the U.S. would soon be filled with the children of “aliens.”

The eugenics movement soon took up this argument, and early twentieth-century popular culture complied by circulating the belief that white women were doing the nation a disservice when they had abortions. Films like Lois Weber’s 1916 Where are my Children? were made with this fear as their premise. In this silent film, a wealthy white woman has a series of abortions behind her husband’s back because she doesn’t want to give up her leisure. In the meantime, her husband, a prominent lawyer, is fighting for the eugenic cause by trying to stop indigent, unhealthy, and already overcrowded families from having more children. Novels like Viña Delmar’s 1928 bestseller Bad Girl implicitly underscored this argument by suggesting that a white, middle-class woman’s job was to have children. Only lascivious, disreputable women have abortions, the novel not so subtly argues. And Anthony Comstock, the infamous moral reformer who helped pass many of the laws that made the circulation of any reference to abortion or birth control by mail illegal, promoted the erroneous belief that abortion was not a procedure a respectful woman would ever choose. Outlawing abortion was seen as a solution to coerce white middle-class and wealthy women to reproduce.

So where does Thomas’ argument about eugenicists using abortion to control the reproductive lives of black women, immigrant women, and disabled women fit in? The truth is that abortion was never, and will never be, a tool used to prevent women from reproducing. Those early twentieth-century eugenicists understood that well because they never argued for forced abortion as a practice to prevent groups of women deemed undesirable from having children. And why should they have used abortion when they had much better systems in place to control women’s reproductive lives? Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court decision, legalized forced sterilization on women deemed “imbecilic.” Forced sterilization allowed the state to decide which women should be prevented from reproducing, while outlawing abortion allowed the state to ensure that some women had limited options for controlling when they reproduced–or how many children to have. The combination of these two laws created powerful control over women’s reproductive lives. It’s now been well documented that through the 1970s many states were sterilizing black women, Puerto Rican women, and poor women against their will and often without their knowledge.1 Long-acting contraceptives were also a far more successful method for controlling black women’s reproduction in the 1990s, as Dorothy Roberts has forcefully documented.2 And while forced sterilization is now illegal, and birth control without true consent is mostly a relic of history, today different methods are in place.

Today we don’t need eugenicists to argue for outlawing abortion to control the reproduction of black women, immigrant women, and indigent women. In today’s world, in the United States, we have shockingly high rates of maternal mortality for black and indigenous women; we have limited healthcare access for indigent women; and we have laws that block immigrant women from seeking healthcare. All these practices, laws, and limitations ensure that some women are quite aware of how much their reproductive lives matter in the eyes of the state. It is these practices and not abortion, as Thomas would like us to believe, that are the inheritors of eugenics and its beliefs that some lives, some women’s lives, matter more than others.


  1. Alexandra Minna Stern, 2006, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, Berkeley: UC Press. Return to text.
  2. Dorothy Roberts, 1998, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, New York: Vintage. Return to text.

Karen Weingarten is an Associate Professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York. Her first book, Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880–1940, was published by Rutgers University Press. She is co-editor of two special issues, Disorienting Disability (South Atlantic Quarterly, June 2019) and Inheritance (WSQ, Spring 2020) and has published articles in Literature and Medicine, Hypatia, Feminist Formations, and Feminist Studies (among other places). She's currently working on a book about the pregnancy test for Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series. You can follow her on Instagram @the_home_pregnancy_test for more about this project.