Within days, the Supreme Court will issue a ruling that could not only strip access to abortion from tens of millions of women but also redefine this essential component of health care as a tool of eugenics.
Allowing states to ban abortion would immediately raise health risks for pregnant women. As for the redefinition, that would codify disinformation — and it, too, would have dangerous consequences.
The leaked draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion nodded approvingly to the discredited theory that those who promote access to birth control and abortion have a eugenicist motive to limit reproduction in Black communities. That is a gross distortion of both history and health care. Embedding this disinformation in a landmark Supreme Court decision will legitimize it — and, in the process, whitewash the vile history of eugenics in our country.
The eugenics movement has never been about giving women the right to choose when they’re ready to bear children. On the contrary, it has been about ripping that autonomy from women deemed inferior, unworthy, irrelevant.
The eugenics movement in the United States was nurtured in the early 20th century by academics, such as Edwin Alderman, the first president of the University of Virginia, who declared that white males were the “fittest to rule.” His racial hierarchies led his state, and many others, to violently deny those they deemed “unfit” the right to reproduce.
More than 100,000 women, mostly Black, Latina, and Indigenous, were forcibly sterilized under state-sanctioned programs over decades — all the way into the 1970s. As journalist Linda Villarosa recently wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “The practice of being sterilized, including during unrelated surgery, grew so common among poor Black women in the South that it came to be known as a ‘Mississippi appendectomy.’ ”
It is no coincidence that Hitler’s 1933 eugenics law, which led to the sterilization of hundreds of thousands of “undesirables,” mostly Jews, was modeled after US legislation.
In the United States, the practice continued even after a landmark lawsuit filed in 1973 — on behalf of two Black girls who were sterilized without their parents’ consent — forced the federal government to stop funding such procedures. From 2006 to 2010, at least 148 women inmates were sterilized by the California Department of Corrections without required state approvals; some told reporters that they’d been coerced into the procedure.
Toxic remnants of the eugenicist ideology persist to this day, fueling extremist views like the “great replacement” narrative, which frames our nation’s demographic evolution as a plot to suppress white power. It was this ideology that reportedly motivated a heavily armed 18-year-old to drive 200 miles last month to target Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo.
This is the true history of eugenics in the United States.
To suggest, in a Supreme Court opinion no less, that abortion rights advocates are somehow abetting this abhorrent ideology by ensuring women have access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care is stunningly wrong.
It was Justice Clarence Thomas who first brought this disinformation to the Supreme Court, in a 2019 concurrence. Conservative activists echoed it in an amicus brief in the current case. The first subheading in the brief sums up their argument: “The Birth Control Movement, Abortion Advocacy, and Eugenics Are All Rooted In Social Darwinism and the Elimination of Undesirable Populations.”
This framing implies, offensively, that Black women and other women of color are not capable of making informed decisions about their own bodies and their own futures but are being manipulated by racist forces when they choose abortion. I hear reprehensible echoes of the eugenicists’ cries about the “feeble-minded” in this argument.
It is also a stunning misdirection. The truth is, the very states that claim to care the most about protecting the unborn also do the least to protect the health of women and children.
In Mississippi, the state at the center of this Supreme Court case, a single mother with two young children and an annual income of just $6,000 earns too much to qualify for subsidized health care. This can be a death sentence. More than 4,000 women in the United States, a disproportionate share of them Black, die each year from cervical cancer. The disease can be treated successfully with early detection. Yet those screens are out of reach for many women, especially in the South, because legislators refuse to extend Medicaid access.
Mississippi also has the worst records on infant mortality and preventable mortality of any state, and a maternal mortality rate five times higher than California’s, which launched an impressive statewide effort in 2006 to recognize and effectively treat the most common causes of death in pregnancy and childbirth. Again, this is due in large part to legislative decisions about who deserves access to quality health care.
To suggest that women who choose not to carry a pregnancy to term in this environment are falling into a eugenicist trap is absurd. Yet that reasoning has propelled strands of the antiabortion movement for years, and within days could be cited by the Supreme Court as one justification for overturning Roe v. Wade.
At this crucial moment, we must raise our voices to declare these truths: Abortion is an essential component of health care. Health care is a human right. And choice is not eugenics. Let’s stand together to set the record straight.
Michelle A. Williams is dean of the faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.