Jewish World Review July 27, 2009 / 6 Menachem-Av 5769
Abortion and the echo of eugenics
By Jeff Jacoby
Not much ever linked the former president, who died in 1994, and the associate justice now in her 17th year on the Supreme Court. But each was in the news recently with a cringe-inducing comment about abortion. Those comments one spoken privately long ago, one uttered publicly this month are a reminder of the ease with which educated elites can decide that some people's lives have no value.
Nixon was meeting with an aide in the White House on Jan. 23, 1973, when the conversation recorded on tapes newly released by the Nixon Presidential Library turned to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision of the day before. Though against abortion on demand, Nixon said it was "necessary" in some cases, such as interracial pregnancies. "There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white," he explained. "Or rape."
Ginsburg's words were even creepier.
"Reproductive choice has to be straightened out," she said in a recent New York Times interview, because "we have a policy that affects only poor women." The justice was referring to the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of Medicaid funds for abortions a law the Supreme Court upheld in Harris v. McRae in 1980. "Frankly, I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion… . But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way."
Populations that we don't want to have too many of who would those be, exactly? Minorities? The poor? The handicapped? Ginsburg didn't elaborate and the Times, unaccountably, didn't ask. Perhaps she was describing the opinion of others but then why speak in the first person plural ("we")? Or maybe she was referring to the views of those who welcomed Roe 36 years ago but then why speak in the present tense ("don't want")?
Whatever Ginsburg's view might be, her words recall the now-rarely-mentioned obsession with eugenics and the elimination of "undesirables" that animated so many supporters of legal abortion and the birth-control movement. Here, for instance, is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority in the 1927 Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, which upheld the right of state governments to forcibly sterilize "feebleminded" citizens:
"It is better for all the world, if 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. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Holmes considered such brutal thinking progressive and enlightened. It "gave me pleasure," he told one friend, to pen a decision upholding compulsory sterilization.
Even more fixated on perfecting the human race through eugenics was Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League known today as Planned Parenthood. In her influential 1922 book, " The Pivot Of Civilization" , Sanger called for "immediate, stern, and definite" action to solve the "problem of the feeble-minded and the menace of the moron" those she regarded as the "dead weight of human waste." She denounced the provision of free medical care to "slum mothers," since that "would facilitate … maternity among the very classes in which the absolute necessity is to discourage it." Sanger was not a racist in her personal life, but there is no denying the racial aspect of her campaign. In 1939, for example, she launched a "Negro Project" that aimed at curtailing black childbirth in the South.
Decades later, the eugenicist mindset lives on. Ron Weddington, co-counsel for the appellants in Roe, wrote an impassioned letter to President-elect Bill Clinton in January 1993, challenging him to "start immediately to eliminate the barely educated, unhealthy and poor segment of our country" not through "some sort of mass extinction," but with massive birth control and abortion. "Condoms alone won't do it… . Government is also going to have to provide vasectomies, tubal ligations, and abortion… . We don't need more poor babies."
Which poor babies? Weddington wasn't specific. But as Jonah Goldberg points out in his 2008 bestseller, " Liberal Fascism" , abortion today "ends more black lives than heart disease, cancer, accidents, AIDS, and violent crime combined." More than half of all black pregnancies in America end in abortion. Surely that wasn't what Justice Ginsburg meant by "populations that we don't want to have too many of." Or was it?
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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