In these days of white supremacists talking about “the great replacement” – their fear that the white “races” will be overtaken by people of color – it is good of Clarence Thomas* to remind us of the ugly history of eugenics. Described misleadingly as the science of improving human populations by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics, eugenics became the policy of forced sterilization, segregation or miscegenation in 32 states. The eugenics movement claimed it was dedicated to ameliorating the human race; but, impatient with the slow pace of voluntary compliance, it turned to compulsory measures to achieve its true aims — a whitening of the gene pool and the elimination of disabilities, many of which were wrongly thought to be inherited. No one should forget the Nazi use of eugenic arguments to justify sterilizations, the killing of “defective” children and adults and the mass murder of “undesirable” people. But to reject birth control today because Margaret Sanger allied with the eugenics movement in the early history of the family planning movement is tantamount to rejecting the science of genetics today based on the aberrant history of eugenics.
Eugenical policy makers mandated forced sterilization, segregation or miscegenation to achieve their aims. Involuntary sterilization, as administered under eugenical sterilization laws, is now recognized as a violation of human rights. It bears no relation to voluntary abortion. The voluntary termination of pregnancy by medical or surgical methods is a decision taken by a woman, in consultation with her physician, for a range of reasons extending from fetal abnormality and endangerment of the woman’s life or health to economic or social determinations. The denial of abortion, however, amounts to state enforced compulsory childbirth and is comparable to coerced sterilization. Forced pregnancy contradicts reproductive freedom and sexual autonomy; it is a condition suffered exclusively by women; and it is a crime against humanity in international law, spelled out in the Rome Statute. The crime is rooted in longstanding ideals of autonomy and equality and the idea that reproductive choice is a basic human right. To endorse forced pregnancy by excluding rape and incest as exemptions in a vulgar attempt to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade is an egregious violation of international human rights law and women’s human rights.
Forcing a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy is reproductive coercion, defined as behavior that interferes with the autonomous decision-making of a woman with regard to reproductive health; coercion includes the threat of consequences for noncompliance with a demand, in this case punishment under the law. In El Salvador, the ban on abortion is total, imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. Under current Salvadoran law, anyone who performs an abortion with the woman’s consent, or a woman who self-induces or consents to someone else inducing her abortion, or who is suspected of having had an abortion after seeking medical attention for serious pregnancy complications, can be imprisoned for up to eight years. In reality, most women end up being prosecuted and sentenced for aggravated homicide, which is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Abortion bans that mandate punishment of the woman or of the physicians who perform the abortion are contrary to international law.
Clarence Thomas correctly points out that more African-American than white women request abortion, attributing the differential to racism. He is right, for the wrong reasons. Racism today is embedded, not in eugenical social engineering, but in the inexcusably higher rates of black than white maternal and infant mortality, the injustice of black/white wealth and income differences, in the injustice of different rates of homelessness and home ownership, in the unfairness of African-American families’ inability to find and afford nutritious food, and in the inequity of contrasting black/white unemployment rates. Black women demand reproductive justice—the right to bear children and raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments; it is the inability to do so that leads so many to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
Justice Thomas’s arguments about genetic manipulation are wrongly directed at abortion and better aimed at the fertility industry, which uses an ever-wider variety of techniques to create pregnancies tailored to the wishes of those who will raise the children. One figure gives some idea of how large this industry has become: the global market for invitro fertilization (IVF) was valued at $16.68 billion in 2018. Since the world’s first baby was conceived invitro in 1978, more than 8 million babies have been born with this technique. It is unimaginable that we would return to the days when there was no hope for infertile women and men. To justify the denial of the possibility of family on the grounds of social engineering is inconceivable
* Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion in the case of Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Inc. can be read athttps://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/18-483_3d9g.pdf
© Meredeth Turshen 5 June 2019