Prenatal Diagnosis, Reproductive Rights, and the Specter of Eugenics

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This article appears in the Fall 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

In 2014, the state of Virginia enacted legislation shielding healthcare workers who provide genetic counseling from lawsuits if they withhold test results they think might dispose a woman to have an abortion. Although counselors can’t lie about results, they no longer have to disclose them. As the executive director of the Virginia ACLU noted, “The way the law is written, if a genetic counselor doesn’t think a patient will make ‘the right choice’ with the information you give them, well, then you don’t have to tell them.”1

Advocacy of such “conscience clauses” is but one element in a recently accelerating campaign to restrict reproductive rights.2  As Frederick Clarkson has found, a raft of state-level legislative and regulatory restrictions on access to abortion followed the “wave election” of 2010.3 As Republicans have continued to consolidate their control of state legislatures and governorships, the stream of restrictions has turned into a flood, with the Trump election further emboldening anti-abortion activists. But a closely related trend has gone less noticed: the increasingly successful movement to bar or discourage the practice of selective abortion; that is, pregnancy termination based on a determination of fetal sex, race, or—far more commonly—genetic abnormality. Conservative anti-abortion activists have certainly fought to restrict abortion in general, but increasingly their strategies focus on banning abortions sought for specific reasons.4 In their campaign against selective abortion, conservatives sometimes find de facto allies among groups that lean Left politically but share conservatives’ unease with the use of prenatal diagnosis (PND) to avoid the birth of children with disabilities.

On both the political Right and Left, some groups find this use of PND repugnant, and charge that it constitutes “eugenics.” Recent changes in medical-practice guidelines and in the technology of testing have heralded a major expansion in the use of PND. The sequencing of the human genome in 2003 ushered in “a new generation of prenatal screening tests,” as journalist Beth Daley has noted.5 A particularly significant development has been the advent of non-invasive prenatal testing, which unlike conventional procedures such as amniocentesis, involves only a simple blood test. Critics of selective abortion are alarmed by these developments; the new tests can make PND easier and cheaper and eliminate risks to the fetus. Consequently, they could greatly expand both the uptake and scope of testing, and thus the rate of termination for fetal anomaly. The belief that we are on the cusp of a major expansion of PND has fueled a multi-pronged effort both to regulate what healthcare providers can say to their patients about prenatal tests and to legislatively restrict the use of such tests. This increasing legislative concern with pregnant women’s decisions all adds up to what law professor Rachel Rebouché has called a “regulatory moment for prenatal health care.”6

What is Eugenics Anyway?

The word “eugenics” was first coined by Sir Francis Galton, a British polymath and half-cousin of Charles Darwin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The word “eugenics” was first coined by Sir Francis Galton, a British polymath and half-cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton believed that differences in heredity explained differences in human intellect, character, and social success, and that the environments in which individuals are raised are far less important than the hereditary traits they inherited from their parents. He also thought that those with the best heredity were being outbred by those with the worst, and that civilization was doomed unless the principle of “breeding from the best” was applied to humans and not just plants and other animals. In 1883, Galton termed this idea “eugenics” (from the Greek eugenes, to refer to one born “good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities”).

Galton, who knew that opposition from Catholics, Whigs hostile to government intervention, and the organized working class would doom any legislative program in Britain, consistently characterized eugenics as a “science” or “study”—not a state prescription. Had it remained such, it’s unlikely that there would be much interest in the subject today. But around 1910, eugenic aims began to inspire an organized social movement, the changing fortunes and reputation of which have informed what the term has come to mean to us. In the 1910s and ‘20s, that movement was both international and widely supported. Eugenics attracted adherents across the political spectrum, appealing to social radicals and conservatives, militarists and pacifists, feminists and misogynists, racists and critics of racism. What united these disparate enthusiasts was the conviction that differences in heredity explained why some people were weak in mind and body while others were strong, and that the least fit members of society, including “mental defectives,” criminals, and the shiftless were breeding more prolifically than the intelligent, prudent, and industrious.

Ultimately, eugenics fell into disrepute. World War II and the revulsion against the Holocaust and specific Nazi programs (such as the murder of mentally ill patients) was long considered a watershed event in eugenics’ popular demise. More recently, though, historians have stressed how little actually changed in its immediate aftermath.7 Although criticism increased after 1945, it was only in the 1960s that eugenic sterilizations began to decline in the U.S.,8 and elsewhere the practice often continued, with and without legal authorization. What ultimately made eugenics disreputable were not revelations of Nazi atrocities but the social movements of the 1970s, especially second-wave feminism, with its maxim that women had a right to control over their own bodies. By the 1980s, the term “eugenics” had acquired highly pejorative connotations.

Once the term became stigmatizing, it also acquired value as a political resource. To claim that a policy or practice constitutes eugenics became implicitly to condemn it. Critics of birth control and reproductive genetic services such as PND and the selection of embryos created via in vitro fertilization would strive to associate them with eugenics. And the criticisms crossed traditional culture-war divides. Catholic disability-rights advocate Mark Leach compared the rationales for past eugenics and contemporary prenatal testing, concluding that the latter “is factually eugenic.” Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly warned that, “There are appearing in our days troubling manifestations of this hateful practice [of eugenics],” suggesting that practices such as the selection of embryos and prenatal testing would lead to abortion.9

Supporters of these practices strenuously reject efforts to link them to eugenics. Ellen Painter Dollar, a pro-choice disability-rights advocate, acknowledged that prenatal testing would lead to “babies with genes defined as ‘undesirable’ [not being] born.” But she denies that such testing constitutes eugenics, writing:

Historically, “eugenics” refers to social movements, supported by governments, institutions, or influential public figures, that had a stated goal of purifying the gene pool either positively (by enabling those with traits perceived as positive to reproduce) or negatively (by forcibly sterilizing or otherwise limiting the reproductive capacity of those with traits perceived as negative). In contrast, procreative decisions today … are largely private decisions made by expectant parents primarily concerned with the well-being of their family, not the genetic make-up of society at large.10

Historian of technology Ruth Schwartz Cowan would agree. In her view, “Prenatal diagnosis has almost nothing in common with eugenics, neither historically nor technologically.”11

Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood, and Eugenics

Perhaps the most emotionally charged debate has concerned the issue of how to characterize Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, the organization she founded. Anti-abortion activists frequently charge that Sanger harbored a deep prejudice against people with disabilities and even that she supported Nazi programs to rid the world of undesirables. In discussing Sanger, anti-abortion websites and blogs abound with words like “genocide” and “Holocaust” and images of swastikas. (This despite Sanger’s condemnation of Nazism, her marriage to a Jewish architect, her support for anti-Fascist organizations, and, ironically, her opposition to abortion.12)

Sanger’s statements and writing, especially on the subject of race, are constantly misrepresented by anti-abortion activists.

She is also frequently accused of having aimed to rid the world of Black people: Thus, at a campaign stop in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 2015, then-presidential candidate and current HUD Secretary Ben Carson claimed that Sanger believed that Blacks “should be eliminated,” while Herman Cain, an earlier conservative Black Republican presidential candidate, asserted that “Planned Parenthood’s early mission was to ‘help kill black babies before they came into the world’” (a claim PolitiFact New Hampshire rated as a “Pants on Fire” untruth).13 A former speaker of the New Hampshire House would even claim that Sanger had been an “an active participant in the Ku Klux Klan.”14 (Sanger once addressed a women’s auxiliary of the KKK, as part of a widespread “whistle stop” family planning information campaign, an episode that she described in her autobiography.15) The evidence associating Sanger with “Black genocide” (when any evidence is cited) usually turns out to be the “Negro Project,” an effort Sanger initiated in 1939, in conjunction with Black ministers and physicians, to make birth control available in poor, Black communities, mostly in the South.16

In response to the onslaught of half-truths and outright lies, Sanger’s defenders tend to deny that she and her organization had anything at all to do with eugenics. The reality is more complicated. Sanger was an enthusiast for some eugenic goals and practices.17 But this did not distinguish her from many political progressives in the 1920s and ‘30s, including Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, Helen Keller, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Her writings contain no hint of racism, much less sympathy for Fascism, and in her own time, her views on selective breeding could best be characterized as mainstream.18 Nonetheless, Sanger’s statements and writing, especially on the subject of race, are constantly misrepresented by anti-abortion activists. These misleading claims are on par with the Right’s distortions of science in the service of an anti-abortion agenda. As Alex DiBranco recently noted, specious claims about the existence of scientific or medical uncertainty when there is in fact a consensus among experts abound. So do claims of causal links, for example between abortion and breast cancer, when no such connection has been established.19

Conflicting Perspectives on the Eugenics-Reproductive Genetics Relationship

Today, we can broadly distinguish three perspectives on the relation of eugenics to reproductive genetics.20 The first is that they have little in common. In this perspective, the eugenics movements that flourished in the early decades of the 20th Century are epitomized by Nazi efforts to breed a master race and eliminate those considered undesirable. Contemporary reproductive genetics could hardly be more different, since, according to this view, it doesn’t target racial or ethnic minorities, concerns disease rather than ill-defined traits like “feeblemindedness,” and conceives of disability as a personal and not a societal matter. Above all, it lacks the coercive power of the state. Indeed, the oft-stated point of the enterprise is to increase reproductive choices. Science journalist Matt Ridley (as well as Ellen Painter Dollar and Ruth Schwartz Cowan) expresses this perspective when he writes, “the essence of eugenics was compulsion: it was the state deciding who should be allowed to breed, or to survive, for the supposed good of the race. As long as we prevent coercion, we will not have eugenics.”21

A second perspective is that reproductive genetics is indeed eugenics, but that fact does not condemn it. Thus, Oxford philosopher Julian Savulescu writes, “in point of fact, we practice eugenics when we screen for Down’s syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities.’’22 In the view of Savulescu and several other philosophers, scientists and science journalists, PND may be eugenics — but not the worrying kind. In their view, eugenics can be good or bad depending on the specific form it takes, and PND is benign.23

In the third perspective—more common than Savulescu’s argument—reproductive genetics is also assumed to be eugenics, and as such, unreservedly bad. This attitude is shared by many politically Left and feminist critics of biotechnology as well as Catholics and disability-rights advocates. Like Savulescu, these critics define eugenics broadly. In their view, it need not involve government coercion (as with the sterilization laws adopted at earlier points by 33 American states and many countries). It can instead come through the “back door,” to use a phrase popularized by sociologist Troy Duster, chosen by women and their partners responding to social norms of health, attractiveness, and so forth.

For these critics, eugenics is fundamentally about attitudes, not state intervention. In their view, PND involves judgments about which traits are desirable or undesirable that reflect socially prejudicial assumptions, with some lives viewed as inherently defective. On the feminist Left, political scientist and historian of technology Joan Rothschild exemplifies this perspective when she writes:

Science and technology, medical professionals, and parents meet in the doctor’s office. This privatized setting is the site for individual decisions…whether to keep a pregnancy or terminate it, and for which diagnosed “defect.” Each decision becomes another judgment as to which conditions, and which children, are acceptable or not. As they aggregate over time, individual decisions add up to a selection process, marking the imperfect, those who may be dispensed with, while certifying those worthy to be born.24

A similar viewpoint is expressed by Mark Leach when he asks:

why is the existence of a governmental policy the critical element for raising moral concerns about the eugenic implications of prenatal genetic testing? Is the lesson of the previous eugenics atrocities that viewing others as burdensome defectives ripe for elimination is wrong only when a governmental policy says so? Or, is not the lesson that it is wrong to view another human life as defective, as a burden, regardless of whether there is a governmental policy or not?25

The Expansion of Prenatal Testing: New Practice Guidelines and New Technologies

The last decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of prenatal genetic testing. One factor has been a recommendation by professional societies to eliminate maternal age as a criterion for amniocentesis and another less-common test, chorionic villus sampling (CVS). In 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a new Practice Bulletin recommending that PND for aneuploidy (the gain or loss of a chromosome) be made available to all women, regardless of maternal age, who were less than 20 weeks pregnant at the time of their first prenatal visit. The American College of Medical Genetics soon followed suit.26 To opponents of selective abortion, these new guidelines seemed to presage an imminent expansion of prenatal testing and hence increase in terminations for fetal anomaly.

An even more important cause has been the advent of non-invasive prenatal testing, a technique that analyzes fragments of cell-free fetal DNA found in pregnant women’s blood. First introduced in Hong Kong in 2011, the technology has spread across the globe, and is now available in more than 90 countries. 27 Until quite recently, its dissemination occurred almost exclusively through the commercial sector. (Six companies, four based in the U.S. and two in China, own most of the relevant patents and other intellectual property). The vast potential market for non-invasive tests provided correspondingly huge incentives to market directly to consumers and to continuously expand the tests’ scope in order to obtain an edge over the competition.28 With demand driven by aggressive consumer advertising, the uptake of such tests occurred prior to their clinical validation and in advance of their endorsement by relevant professional societies or a regulatory framework for their use. However, in response to consumer demand, such testing is increasingly reimbursed by health insurance in the U.S., and several countries now include it in their national prenatal screening programs.29

Although professional societies currently recommend that non-invasive tests only be used for screening, not diagnosis, both the excitement and anxiety the technology has generated arises from its potential to replace amniocentesis and CVS. Non-invasive testing can be offered earlier in pregnancy than amniocentesis, creating less anxiety and potentially allowing abortions to be medical rather than surgical. Non-invasive testing is also cheaper than conventional PND, and it removes the roughly 0.5-1 percent risk to the fetus.

Due to the risk of miscarriage associated with invasive procedures, their cost, and the stage of gestation at which decisions are made, PND is not now universally offered. Instead, maternal serum tests and ultrasound are employed as screening tests to limit invasive procedures to those pregnancies considered “at risk.” But with non-invasive testing, all the factors that have constrained the offer of testing are removed. In the future, it will likely be possible to combine non-invasive testing with full genome-wide analysis, enabling the detection of any genetic condition, predisposition, or even non-medical trait.30

The rapid dissemination of non-invasive testing has understandably alarmed those opposed to selective abortion. Although some of their concerns, especially around the commercial sector’s dominance of this field, are shared by other groups, Catholics and social conservatives have been particularly vocal. Writing in the National Catholic Register, journalist Celeste McGovern summarizes, “Rather than saving lives, pro-lifers see this test as an enhanced ‘search and destroy’ diagnostic tool that exponentially expands the genetic information available on unborn babies—so that parents may have up to 3,500 genetic possibilities to weigh into a decision about whether or not to have an abortion.” David Prentice, a Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council, similarly argues, “for the most part, this is just a further slide down the eugenics slope.” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, sees the PrenaTest as “eugenics, pure and simple,” and asks, “Is the infernal term ‘life unworthy of life’ going to become reality again?”31

A “Regulatory Moment” for Prenatal Diagnosis

Concerns related to the expansion of non-invasive testing are international—as is the backlash.32 In the U.S., these concerns have spurred a variety of federal and state regulatory efforts to bar or discourage selective abortion. One form such efforts have taken is regulation of the kinds of information that health-care providers provide to pregnant women. Recent laws in Virginia and Nebraska allow genetic counselors to refuse to share any information that conflicts with their moral or religious beliefs, while laws in Arizona and Oklahoma protect physicians who fail to disclose fetal abnormalities.33 These laws are part of a more general movement over the past two decades to expand so-called conscience clauses that allow healthcare workers to opt out of providing services they disagree with, and to enact regulations that claim to protect women from themselves.

The last decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of prenatal genetic testing. Photo: Alex Proimos via Flickr.

A less controversial effort aims to require objectivity in the information provided to pregnant women. This “pro-information” movement, which began about a decade ago, assumes that many women choose pregnancy termination because the information they receive from health care providers is biased. On this view, obstetricians and gynecologists, genetic counselors, and other providers all believe that life with Down syndrome—the near-exclusive focus of the movement—is exceedingly burdensome to the individual and family. Disability-rights and anti-abortion activists say that assumption is wrong. (These two very different groups of activists sometimes overlap, but their positions aren’t identical, since the latter oppose abortion per se, whereas many disability-rights activists are only critical of selective abortion, which they would discourage but not necessarily ban.) They point to statistics indicating that people with Down syndrome and their families are satisfied with their lives. They want prospective parents to be given literature they have produced or vetted and to be referred to their organizations for further information and support.

This campaign resulted in a 2008 federal law, the “Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act,” co-sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), which aimed to strengthen patient support networks, increase referrals to support services for women who receive a positive diagnosis, and guarantee that they’re given accurate information about test results and the range of outcomes associated with the diagnosed conditions.34 But no funds were appropriated for the law, which also lacked any enforcement provision. As individuals and organizations realized that the statute would have little if any impact, they began to mobilize at the state level. To date, 17 U.S. states have enacted pro-information statutes.35 Given that it’s difficult to argue against “information,” which is often taken to be an unqualified good, such proposals are often passed unanimously or by overwhelming majorities.

Those who support such laws often emphasize that the movement is merely pro-information, not anti-abortion. However, to the frustration of many Down Syndrome associations, this effort to bridge the abortion divide has increasingly been hijacked by right-to-life organizations. Thus, Louisiana’s law prohibits the state from recognizing materials that “explicitly or implicitly present termination as a neutral or acceptable choice,” and recently, Indiana and Texas have followed suit.36 David Perry, an influential disability-rights activist who is also pro-choice, has written that right-wing legislators’ efforts to use the pro-information movement to restrict reproductive choice has forced him to question whether he can continue to advocate for pro-information laws. “In general, conservative legislatures pass anti-choice bills while simultaneously removing social supports for poor families,” he said. “Even when the bills explicitly deal with disability-selection abortions… they are not disability rights legislation. They are attempts to divide and conquer.”

“Even when the bills explicitly deal with disability-selection abortions… they are not disability rights legislation. They are attempts to divide and conquer.”

A more direct effort to limit abortion would ban providers from performing the procedure if they knew it was sought for specified reasons. This strategy is congruent with the incremental restrictions on abortion that have largely supplanted attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade. At the federal level, Prenatal Nondiscrimination Acts (PRENDAs) to bar abortion based on the sex (or in most versions, both sex and race) of the fetus have been proposed nearly every year since 2008. The 2012 bill passed the House by a vote of 246 to 168, with only seven Republicans opposed (and 20 Democrats voting in favor), but as it was brought up under a rule suspension that limited debate, it required a two-thirds majority to pass.38 At the time of this writing, the 2017 PRENDA has 64 co-sponsors, 63 of whom are Republicans. Should it be enacted, medical professionals could be sentenced to up to five years imprisonment for performing an abortion sought because of fetal sex or race.39

PRENDA, Feminism, and Racial Justice

The language of feminism, civil rights, and racial justice suffuses these bills; indeed, they were originally titled the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Acts. But it’s obvious from the records of their sponsors that these bills have nothing to do with either feminism or racial justice. All the PRENDA bills have been introduced in the House by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), a “Freedom Caucus” member and the driving force behind other anti-abortion legislation, including a bill to ban all abortions after 20 weeks even in cases of rape and incest. In Franks’ own words: “I’ve introduced every pro-life effort you can think of.”40 As journalist Kate Sheppard remarked of the 2012 version, “The lawmakers behind it haven’t been particularly interested in women or people of color after they exit the womb in the past, opposing measures to require equal pay for women and to renew the Voting Rights Act, and most recently gutting the Violence Against Women Act.”41 The real agenda is also evident in the fact that the bills only target abortion and not any other means for practicing sex- or race-selection such as the choice of which embryos to implant as the result of preimplantation genetic diagnosis. At the state level, race-selective abortion bans have been approved by legislatures and governors in two states, while sex-selective abortion bans have been introduced in over 20 and approved in nine.42

Laws barring race-selective abortion are part of an effort to link relatively high rates of abortion in the African-American community to eugenics. As noted in PRA’s “Defending Reproductive Justice: An Activist Resource Kit,” a key event in this effort was the 2010 “Too Many Aborted” billboard campaign sponsored by the Radiance Foundation. A parallel campaign, sponsored by a different group, erected billboards with images of Barack Obama and the legend, “Every 21 minutes, our next possible LEADER is ABORTED.” Recently, anti-abortion activists have taken up the language of “Black Lives Matter.” Trading on the emotional resonance of that phrase, Americans United for Life (AUL) has sponsored a “#BlackWomenMatter” campaign.43 (Such efforts frequently reference Sanger’s “Negro Project.”44) But implicit in PRENDA laws is the assumption that women of color practice racial discrimination against their own fetuses, an assumption that, as Rep. John Conyers commented, “is absurd on its face.”45 Race and sex-selective abortion are rarities in the U.S. The legal prohibitions against them are introduced not to counter actual practices but to make liberals and leftists look like hypocrites.

The legal prohibitions against them are introduced not to counter actual practices but to make liberals and leftists look like hypocrites.

Abortion for fetal anomalies, on the other hand, is widespread. Indeed, in at least 11 states, a diagnosis of serious fetal defect was a recognized exception to pre-Roe v. Wade laws barring abortion. And in the post-Roe era, at least six states explicitly allowed late abortions for fetal anomaly.46 Thus, efforts to legislatively discourage the practice by requiring special counseling when an abortion is sought for that reason or banning it outright are far more controversial. Nevertheless, as part of its “Infants’ Protection Project,” the AUL proposed model legislation “protecting unborn infants from eugenics” by banning abortions performed because of genetic abnormalities.47 In 2013, North Dakota became the first state to approve such a statute. Louisiana and Indiana followed in 2016, although implementation of the law in those states has been temporarily enjoined by court order.

A Concluding Caution

This history holds a warning for those who would like to see Donald Trump removed from office and replaced by his VP. It was after all then-Governor Mike Pence who signed Indiana’s uniquely expansive PRENDA bill—the first to bar abortion based on all three criteria of race, sex, and suspected genetic abnormalities and to penalize doctors who performed an abortion motivated by these reasons—as well as a host of other restrictive provisions and laws, including requirements that women receive an ultrasound before an abortion and that fetal tissue be buried or cremated by a funeral home. That Pence was responsible for making Indiana a leader in curbing access to abortion explains why, according to reporter Todd Zwillich, at least some conservative evangelicals believe that “God is using Trump to deliver Pence to the WH, & that Trump will be eliminated.”48 At least in respect to reproductive rights, there could be even worse fates than continuation of the Trumpian status quo.

Of course, many who would like to see Trump removed from office recognize that Pence would likely be even more destructive to the cause of reproductive rights. But given the nature and extent of Trump’s other flaws, they are willing to accept the trade-off. The moral to be drawn from the history of efforts to discourage prenatal diagnosis is not that progressives should prefer Trump to Pence but that they should be exceedingly wary of engaging in de facto alliances with the Right. The history of PRENDA laws, whose advocates have managed to wrap their anti-choice agenda in the mantle of feminism and racial justice, and the sad fate of the “pro-information” movement, illustrates how easily the efforts of feminists, disability and civil-rights activists can be co-opted for ends they would find repugnant. As a 14th Century proverb has it: “He who would sup with the devil had better have a long spoon.”


1 Molly Redden, “This Law Allows Genetic Counselors to Turn Away Gays and Unwed Parents,” Mother Jones, March 25, 2014, Redden notes that the law was signed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. For the Act:

2 For a recent, excellent analysis of abortion law, policy, and politics, see Carol Sanger, About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

3 Frederick Clarkson’s forthcoming Political Research Associates report on the Right’s successful maneuvers to cut off access to abortion in the states since 2010.

4 Jaime S. King, “Politics and Fetal Diagnostics Collide,” Nature 491, November 1, 2012, p. 33.

5 Beth Daley, “Oversold and Misunderstood: Prenatal Screening Tests Prompt Abortions,” New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Dec. 13. 2014,

6 Rachel Rebouché, “Non-Invasive Testing, Non-Invasive Counseling,” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 43 (2015): 228–240, on p. 228.

7 Alison Bashford, “Where Did Eugenics Go?”, in Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, eds. Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010), 539-558.

8 Pauline Mazumdar, “‘Reform Eugenics’ and the Decline of Mendelism,” Trends in Genetics 18, 1 (2002): 48-52, on p. 51.

9 Mark Leach, “Eugenics: then and now in the era of prenatal testing for Down syndrome,” March 31, 2016,; “Pope speaks out against ‘new eugenics,’ Church, Feb. 25, 2009,

10 Ellen Painter Dollar, “Does Prenatal Testing Equal Eugenics?” Patheos, August 8, 2012,

11 Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Heredity and Hope: The Case for Genetic Screening (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 114.

12 On Sanger’s anti-Fascist attitudes and activities, see “The Sanger-Hitler Equation” (Newsletter #32 (Winter 2002-03), and her 1939 statement on “Hitler and War”,

13 Clay Wirestone, “Did Margaret Sanger believe African-Americans “should be eliminated”? PolitiFact New Hampshire, Oct. 5, 2015,

14 Clay Wirestone, “NH Rep. Bill O’Brien says Margaret Sanger was active participant in KKK,” PolitiFact New Hampshire, March 18, 2015,

15 For an account of the history of the claim that Sanger admired the KKK and of the sometimes doctored photographs published in support of that claim, see Kim LaCapria, “Klanned Parenthood,” Sept. 30, 2015,

16 For a nuanced account of the project, see “Birth Control or Race Control: Sanger and the Negro Project,” The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter #28 (Fall 2001), See also Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, 2nd ed, (New York: Vintage Books, 2016).

17 The slogan of the Birth Control Review was “To Breed a Race of Thoroughbreds.” And according to the “Aims and Principles” of the American Birth Control League, of which Sanger was President: “Everywhere we see poverty and large families going hand in hand.  Those least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly. Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those who should never have been born.” Reprinted in The Pivot of Civilization (NY: Brentano’s, 1922), 279.

18 For a fuller analysis of the controversy, see the PolitiFact articles by Wirestone cited above and the blogpost by Taylor Sullivan, “The ’Feeble-Minded’ and the ‘Fit’: What Sanger Meant When She Talked about Dysgenics,’ Margaret Sanger Papers Project,

19 Alex DiBranco, “Whole Woman’s Heath’s Unexpected Win for Science,” The Public Eye, Oct. 28, 2016, See also Pam Chamberlain, “Politicized Science: How Anti-Abortion Myths Feed the Christian Right Agenda,” The Public Eye, June 4, 2006,

20 For a fuller version of this argument, see Diane B. Paul, “What Was Wrong with Eugenics? Conflicting Narratives and Disputed Interpretations,” Science & Education 23 (2014): 259-271.

21 Matt Ridley, “Gene Editing Isn’t a Slippery Slope to Eugenics,” The Times (London), May 16, 2016.

22 Quoted in John Sutherland, “The ideas interview: Julian Savulescu. Eugenics need not be Nazi, and drugs in sport are good, Oxford’s leading ethicist tells John Sutherland,” The Guardian, 9 October 2005.

23 Other examples include Philip Kitcher, The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities. (New York: Free Press, 1997), Daniel Wikler, “Can We Learn from Eugenics? Journal of Medical Ethics 25 (1999): 183-194; Nicholas Agar, Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), Jonathan Glover. Choosing Children: Genes, Disability, and Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

24 Joan Rothschild, Dream of the Perfect Child (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005), 3-4.

25 Mark Leach, “A Eugenics Common Sense?.” Public Discourse, July 31, 2012,

26 ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 77: screening for fetal chromosomal abnormalities. Obstetrics and Gynecology 109, 1 (2007): 217-27; Deborah A. Driscoll and Susan J. Gross, “First Trimester Diagnosis and Screening for Fetal Aneuploidy,” Genetics in Medicine 10, 1 (2008): 73-75.

27 M. Allyse, M.A. Minear, E. Berson et al. “Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing: A Review of International Implementation and Challenges,” International Journal of Women’s Health 7 (2015): 113–126; J. Mozersky, V. Ravitsky, R, Rapp, M. Michie, S. Chandrasekharan, and M. Allyse, “Toward an Ethically Sensitive Implementation of Noninvasive Prenatal Screening in the Global Context,” Hastings Center Report 47, 2 (2017): 41-49. European Union regulations prohibit direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs but not genetic tests. For the current state of play in the EU and its member states see Louiza Kalokairinou, Pascal Borry, and Heidi Carmen Howard, “Regulating the advertising of genetic tests in Europe: a balancing act,” Journal of Medical Genetics. Published Online First. (22 July 2017). doi: 10.11361.

28 A. Agarwal, L.C. Sayres, M.K. Cho, R. Cook-Deegan, and S. Chandrasekharan, “Commercial landscape of noninvasive prenatal testing in the United States,” Prenatal Diagnosis 33 (2013): 521–531. doi:10.1002/pd.4101; P. Twiss, M. Hill, R. Daley, and L.S. Chitty, “Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing for Down Syndrome.” In Seminars in Fetal and Neonatal Medicine 19, 1: 9-14 (Philadelphia: WB Saunders, 2014).

29 Lisa Hui, et al. “Population-based impact of noninvasive prenatal screening on screening and diagnostic testing for fetal aneuploidy.” Genetics in Medicine (2017). Epub ahead of print.

30 Vardit Ravitsky, “Non-Invasive Prenatal Genetic Testing: Social and Ethical Challenges.” Panel on NIPT, Harvard Law School, 6 November 6, 2014.

31 The McGovern and Prentice quotes are from Celeste McGovern, “New Prenatal Testing Could Drastically Increase Abortion Rate,” National Catholic Register, June 25, 2012. Cardinal Schönborn is quoted in Johannes Bucher, “New Prenatal Test Will Bring Eugenics Back to Germany,” Human Life International (2012),

32 In 2012, Down Syndrome International, a federation of 30 organizations from 16 countries, filed an objection to the sale of the PrenaTest at the European Court of Human Rights. The filing argued that since most pregnancies diagnosed with Down syndrome are terminated, the test violates the right to life of individuals with that condition. In several countries that are parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, disability-rights groups have invoked the convention to try to change policy that they believe favors disability-selective abortion.

33 Rebouché, “Non-Invasive Testing,” 228.

34 For the text of the Act:

35 For a list, see “Pro-Information Laws & Toolkit,” National Down Syndrome Society.

36 Nancy McCrae Iannone, “Keep Abortion Politics Out of the Pro-Information Movement,” June 21, 2014:; David M. Perry, “Faux-Information: Indiana and the Collapse of the Pro-Information Coalition,” Jan. 19, 2015:; Mark W. Leach, “Pro-life should not hijack pro-information,” Jan. 21, 2015:; Mark W. Leach ,”The Down Syndrome Information Act: Balancing the Advances of Prenatal Testing Through Public Policy,” Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” 54 (2016): 84-93.

37 David M Perry, “Anti-Women, Anti-Information: Indiana abortion bill advances,” Feb. 21, 2015.

38 Kate Sheppard, “House GOP’s ‘Prenatal Non-Discrimination’ Bill Fails,” May 31, 2017. (For the current bill:

39 Sital Kilantry, “Here’s Why that Race-Sex Selection Bill is so Discriminatory,” We•news, April 19, 2016,

40 Quoted in Joseph Guzman, Cronkite News, “Glendale congressman hopeful for ‘born alive’ abortion bill with Trump in White House,” Arizona Republic,” Jan. 26, 2017.

41 Sheppard, “House GOP’s ‘Prenatal Non-Discrimination’ Bill Fails.”

42 Abortion Bans in Cases of Race or Sex Selection or Genetic Anomaly [As of June 1, 2017]. Guttmacher Institute.; Kilantry, “Here’s Why.”

43 Olga Khazan, “Planning the End of Abortion,” The Atlantic, July 16, 2015:

44 Willoughby Mariano, “Cain claims Planned Parenthood founded for ‘planned genocide,’” PolitiFact Georgia, March 15, 2011,

45 Quoted in Kalantry, “Here’s Why that Race-Sex Selection Bill is so Discriminatory.”

46 On the eugenic abortion exception pre-Roe, see Charles P. Kindregan, “Eugenic Abortion,” Suffolk University Law Review (1972) 6: 405-60 (1972), on p. 405, note 2; see also pp. 421-23 on the wording of these laws. On the passage of post-Roe laws allowing late-term abortion for fetal anomaly, see Rebouché, “Non-Invasive Testing,” 232.

47 “Infants’ Protection Project,” Americans United for Life,

48 Dan Vergano, “8 Ways Trump’s VP Pick Made Indiana An Extreme Anti-Abortion State, “Buzzfeed News (Oct. 19, 2016). The quotation appeared in a comment by Todd Zwillich. On Pence’s anti-abortion efforts see also Monica Davey and Michael Barbaro, “How Mike Pence Became a Conservative Hero: Unwavering Opposition to Abortion,” New York Times, July 16, 2016.

Sticks and Cages, Carrots & Cash: The Right’s Racist Assaults on Reproductive Freedom

This post is the fourth in a five-part series examining the U.S. Right’s efforts to alter demographic trends by re-popularizing arguments and ideologies rooted in eugenics. (Read parts one, two, and three.) Today, I continue to discuss the U.S. Right’s coercive attempts to limit the fertility of people of color, an egregious affront to reproductive justice. This segment covers private and state mechanisms for preventing poor people of color, particularly Black women, from having children.  

As shown in the most recent post in this series, institutions like hospitals and other health care providers—generally regarded as unequivocally positive presences among White communities—often cast a much more violent shadow over communities of color. Similarly, White communities typically experience police officers as their protectors, while the same forces can pose a constant and lethal threat to law-abiding Black communities. People of color are also disproportionately likely to be ensnared in institutions designed to exert control without any veil of benevolence. Because mainstream narratives situate Black and Brown bodies as dangerous, as somehow oppositional or threatening to White American identity and nationhood, the state project of containing people of color is normalized and accepted as legitimate. Unspeakably inhumane apparatuses are thus widely regarded as necessary. Of the institutions violently managing Black and Brown bodies and populations (in every sense of both terms), mass incarceration likely looms largest.

The criminal justice system deploys a variety of methods to deny incarcerated people their rights to have children, and because mass incarceration is a racist project, African American people bear the brunt of this punishment. (Significantly, incarceration itself fundamentally obstructs the right to parent, making it a critical reproductive justice issue.) One such method is deliberately handing a woman a sentence likely to extend through her procreative years; another is forcing people convicted of certain crimes to “choose” between serving jail time and adopting long-acting contraceptive use; another is shifting parental rights over newborns to foster or adoptive parents; and another still is the practice of shunting people into carceral institutions distant from their communities and their partners. Additionally, incarcerated people’s access to reproductive health care tends to be abysmal. In some prisons and jails, the problem is not just the absence or insufficiency of care, but also procedures that are undertaken without informed consent.

A study by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) found that between 2006 and 2010, nearly 150 people (if not more) held in California state prisons were sterilized under coercion and without legally mandated state approval. Christina Cordero, who received an unauthorized tubal ligation while incarcerated, said the prison OB-GYN persistently recommended that she undergo the procedure, making her “feel like a bad mother if [she] didn’t do it.” Kimberly Jeffrey, a Black woman who was also sterilized while incarcerated, reported being “pressured by a doctor while sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section” (emphasis added). Jeffrey also recalls being told that she could only reclaim custody of her youngest child if she underwent a full hysterectomy. Jeffrey, who works with Justice Now, received no medical consultation about the operation, and her explicit resistance was ignored. Even if she had willingly acceded to the operation, however, Jeffrey could not have given consent: according to University of Pennsylvania Law professor Dorothy Roberts, courts have ruled that the conditions of labor can impair judgment, making it such that informed consent cannot be given during labor. (See Roberts’s Killing the Black Body 1)1997 for a more comprehensive analysis of attacks on Black women’s bodies and fertility.)

James Heinrich, the unremorseful OB-GYN who performed many of the tubal ligations, told CIR that he believed the cost of the surgeries, at nearly $150,000,to be negligible “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children…as they procreated more.” Heinrich’s language is loaded. “Unwanted” implies promiscuity and assumes carelessness, while “procreated” indicates animalism, as opposed to the white feminine ideal of nurturing motherhood. Perhaps most appalling is Heinrich’s implicit bottom line: that certain people, disproportionately poor women of color and particularly poor Black women, ought not to have children because their offspring would be supported at the expense of the state’s more deserving citizens. Like the mythical “anchor babies” of Latina/o immigrants, the children of incarcerated people are presumed to be parasitic strains on the “system” even prior to their conception.

His prejudicial premise aside, Heinrich’s cost-benefit analysis hardly stands up to interrogation. His economic argument belies the fact that the exponential rise in incarceration itself, caused not by a rise in crime but rather by increasingly harsh and inflexible sentencing laws, has incurred enormous cost to the state. While expenditures on assistance under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families totaled about $5.3 billion in Fiscal Year 2013, the President’s FY13 budget request for the Federal Bureau of Prisons was $6.9 billion.

For those complicit in imposing tubal ligations in California prisons, the procedures were predicated not on smart budgeting so much as on problematic notions of who deserves support and who deserves punishment. Like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and its rabidly anti-immigration constituency, Heinrich and his colleagues cast poor women of color as scam artists or conniving thieves, rather than rational agents of their own reproduction. The anti-immigration Right may no longer be taking active measures to physically manage Latina women’s fertility, but the arguments for sterilizing incarcerated people who can become pregnant (who, in California and elsewhere, are disproportionately poor and of color) are much the same as the arguments put forth by FAIR and other nativist groups highlighted earlier in this series.

Some on the Right, however, have explicitly condemned the malfeasances that occurred in California prisons, based on the notion that sterilization frustrates potential life. These anti-choice groups’ denunciation is well directed, but ill-reasoned. The arguments and strategies employed by individuals and groups like Heinrich and FAIR are reprehensible not because of the hypothetical lives lost to sterilization, but because they deprive living people of their fundamental right to build the families they wish to build. Still, while imagined children are not the victims, nor are they irrelevant. It is critical to understand that the criminalization of Blackness, of Brownness, and of poverty is so entrenched that it precedes birth.

Moreover, while certain right-wing groups have seized the opportunity to criticize the wrongdoings undertaken by state institutions under majority Democratic governance, the same factions have looked on silently, even supportively, as Project Prevention (PP, formerly Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity, or C.R.A.C.K.) pursues a parallel process, ideologically and practically, outside of prisons.

The name C.R.A.C.K. invokes President Reagan’s manufactured panic surrounding the crack epidemic and its racialized and scientifically baseless ghouls, “crack mothers” and “crack babies.” The organization was founded in 1994 by Barbara Harris, whose first mission was to pass state legislation punishing people who give birth to drug-exposed infants. Such punishments, codified and otherwise, abound, and in the 413 cases analyzed in a 2013 study, 59 percent of people subject to state punishment under post-Roe v. Wade legislation criminalizing pregnancy were of color, and 52 percent were African-American. Harris’ particular initiative, however, proved unsuccessful. Founding C.R.A.C.K. was her ostensibly benevolent alternative.

Today, Project Prevention gives $300 in cash to people who are or have been addicted

C.R.A.C.K. flyer targets women of color, offering them cash payouts to go on long-term birth control

C.R.A.C.K. flyer targets women of color, offering them cash payouts to go on long-term birth control

to drugs or alcohol and who submit documentation proving that they have undergone sterilization procedures or are using long-acting contraception, such as Norplant or Depo-Provera. The organization, whose advertising targets low-income communities of color, also disseminates stigmatizing and scientifically inaccurate literature, which describes imagined horrors of drug-addicted motherhood and the irresponsible hyperfertility Harris attributes to women who use drugs.

Just as the California sterilizations took place among the innumerable other restrictions incarceration imposes on incarcerated people’s reproductive lives, Project Prevention represents an extreme manifestation of racist ideologies and practices that are widely accepted and deeply rooted in American society.

Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), argues that the organization’s strategies are actually part and parcel of Harris’ original, more overtly punitive, intention. PP’s mission, she argues, could be “understood as one designed to stigmatize certain people and to make them seem appropriate targets for sterilization and other forms of population control” (23).

Paltrow’s analysis is supported by a 2012 article Jed Bickman published in Salon, which states that of the 4,077 people the newly rebranded Project Prevention had paid to be sterilized or use long-acting contraceptives, 24 percent were African-American. The United States population is only 13.2 percent Black, and illicit drug use among Black Americans is not substantiallyif at allhigher than it is among White Americans.

Groups like NAPW have worked extensively to expose and oppose PP’s discriminatory efforts to undercut reproductive justice. But where is the Right with its ardent defense of life and unequivocal condemnation of contraception? They’re funding Harris. By 2006, C.R.A.C.K. had received donations totaling more than $2 million, the majority of which, Paltrow documents, came from wealthy conservatives. Major benefactors included the Allegheny Foundation, founded by the “funding father of the right,” billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife (who also contributed millions of dollars to FAIR and to other nativist projects initiated by FAIR’s eugenecist founder, John Tanton.); Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the vitriolically anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ talk show host; and right0-wing donor Jim Woodhill, Woodhill also hired British psychologist and unabashed eugenicist Chris Brand to bring Project Prevention overseas. Project Prevention’s sites of operation now include Haiti and Kenya, where its staff works to sterilize women with HIV.

Like Heinrich and the fertility-obsessed nativists, Project Prevention’s representatives are adept at speaking in code. The publicity team at Project Prevention characterizes the organization as seeking to “save our welfare system and the world from the exorbitant cost to the taxpayer for each drug-addicted birth”(Bickman).Ultimately, all of these enemies of reproductive autonomy position themselves as noble crusaders against the “threat” of government resources sustaining Black and brown children and families.

In the final installment of this series, I will more specifically address welfare’s role as part of the Right’s rhetorical and practical strategies for vilifying poor women of color and limiting their reproductive freedoms.

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References   [ + ]

1. 1997

Of Bombs and Wombs: Nativist Myths of Weaponized Fertility

(More Right-Wing Prophecies of White Supremacy’s Decline)

This post is the second in a series examining the U.S. Right’s efforts to alter global demographic trends by re-popularizing arguments and ideologies rooted in eugenics. (Read part one here.) In this post and those to follow, I discuss the U.S. Right’s coercive attempts to limit the fertility of people of color, with a focus on the anti-immigration Right. 

In my last article, I discussed the Right’s fear-mongering narrative that contraceptive use and other exercises of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy are catapulting civilization into decline. Curiously, there is also a swath of powerful right-wing voices making what appears to be a diametrically opposed argument. They are organized around the perceived threat of population growth, and—like their pro-population growth counterparts—they are deeply invested in regulating exactly which populations are permitted to procreate. In truth, though, these seemingly rival factions are two sides to the proverbial coin, and that coin is eugenics.

Courtesy of peoplesworld, Creative Commons

Courtesy of peoplesworld

Population alarmism, or the notion that high rates of population growth are to blame for poverty, climate change, and a host of other nightmarish global problems, is a well-disguised framework for undermining poor people of color’s reproductive autonomy. Its insidiousness comes from the effective coding of rhetoric surrounding hyperfertility and handout-seeking burdens to taxpayers as references to women of color, particularly poor Black women and immigrant Latina women. The fiction that excessively high birthrates are the source of human suffering becomes a way to mask racism, misogyny, and elitism while still clearly identifying poor women of color as the enemy, the undesirable Other.

It is important to note that not all people who can become pregnant are women; many trans men and nonbinary people can also become pregnant, and they are materially affected by attacks on reproductive health. Of course, such attacks are gendered in their ideology, and in this sense they are attacks on women, which necessarily impact trans women. Therefore, when referring to the logic of limiting reproductive choice, I will use “women”; when referring to actual initiatives to limit reproductive choice, I will use “people who can become pregnant.”

U.S. eugenics are at least as old as Mendel’s laws of heredity, but the pretext of unsustainable population growth for right-wing vilification of women of color’s fertility can be traced back to the emergence of a “new Malthusianism” that gained traction under President Nixon. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich sounded the alarm with his book The Population Bomb (coauthored without attribution by his wife), which argued that the earth was approaching its carrying capacity, and rising population growth would be catastrophic for humans and the environment. Coupled with Cold War anxieties that growing populations would cause resource scarcity, which would give rise to Communism, the Ehrlichs’ arguments helped generate bipartisan support for the suppression and stabilization of population growth. The conflation of the “population problem” and the implicitly racialized “urban crisis” of the mid-1960s further strengthened this support. Derek Hoff writes, “The purported connection between population growth and the urban crisis…injected a fresh dose of racial politics into a population discussion already tainted and racialized via the unfortunate legacy of eugenics” (31).

Right-wing enthusiasm for population control began to wane precipitously, however, when zero-growth efforts became associated with the pro-choice movement (giving way to right-wing resistance from groups like the Population Research Institute and the World Council of Families, which I discussed previously). Additionally, libertarian groups embraced population growth as integral to populist efforts, and the rise of neoliberalism thrust regulation to the political margins. Nonetheless, certain right-wing elements of the zero population growth movement remained.

One such element was the right-wing nativist contingent. 1979 saw the inception of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a virulently nativist organization that began by couching its racist agenda in unscientific environmentalist arguments for shrinking the immigrant population in the United States. According to Priscilla Huang of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), a number of FAIR’s highest positions are held by people with “ties to white supremacist groups,” and the organization has been the recipient of more than $1 million from the Pioneer Fund, whose other grantees include groups that perform “research in eugenics and ‘race science’” (394). FAIR’s founder, John Tanton, has openly embraced eugenics. (Tanton also played an integral role in founding NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, which both advance nativist efforts to restrict immigration.) The Southern Poverty Law Center has named FAIR a hate group.

FAIR is not alone in exploiting fears of climate change and resource scarcity to foster anti-immigrant sentiment and shape anti-immigrant legislation, but it is spearheading the charge. FAIR is the largest anti-immigrant organization in the U.S., and probably the most influential. With ample congressional influence and a reported 250,000 members, FAIR cannot be dismissed as merely a fringe group.

Nativist advocates of population control have attempted to square their agenda with the anti-choice philosophies of the Right by claiming, as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) did in 2007, “If we had those 40 million children that were killed over the last 30 years, we wouldn’t need illegal immigrants to fill the jobs that they are doing today” (Huang, 403). The subtext of this ludicrous assertion is that abortion (that evil of evils) is killing the good children: the White ones.

DeLay’s line of reasoning also smooths over another major break between the anti-choice Right and the population control movement. To right-wing libertarians who seek to shrink government, DeLay (along with those who have made similar arguments) suggests that curtailing immigration and immigrant populations will preserve the integrity of a U.S. libertarian movement by restoring power to the right (read: White) people.

In a memo titled “Latin Onslaught,” John Tanton says that White people’s “power and control over their lives [is] declining” as “a group that is simply more fertile” procreates itself to majority status (Sánchez, 2). As Tanton would have it, big government and a growing Latino voting base are co-conspirators in the effort to rob “real” Americans of the autonomy and supremacy they are due. (“More fertile,” of course, implies more promiscuous, more sexual, more irresponsible—all stereotypes with which women of color are branded. In true eugenic fashion, it also implies innate bodily difference from white women.)

Historically, nativist efforts to quell the perceived threat of Latina women’s fertility have gone far beyond altering immigration patterns. An article by Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Taja Lindley at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health explains that coercive sterilizations of Latina/o people who could become pregnant were widespread in the 1960s and 1970s. This abuse, the authors say, was motivated by “[f]ears about over-population, welfare dependency, increased spending for public services, and illegitimate childbearing,” which “fueled stereotypes about both women of color and immigrant women, and led health professionals and State policymakers to intimidate ‘undesirable’ women into agreeing to surgical sterilization.”

In 1978, ten Chicana women who were coercively sterilized at a Los Angeles County hospital (whose obstetric residents had a quota for tubal ligations) over a four-year period went to court seeking justice. While Madrigal v. Quilligan ultimately led to the enactment of important regulations for obstetricians, the ruling favored the doctors who had performed the surgeries, affirming the stereotype that Mexican women tend to have excessive numbers of children and determining that “it was not objectionable for an obstetrician to think that a tubal ligation could improve a perceived overpopulation problem,” or to perform the procedure in compliance with this racialized and politicized theory. (Read Alexandra Minna Stern’s thorough analysis of the politics of Madrigal here.) Latina organizers, including those who bravely went before the court in Madrigal, worked tirelessly to abolish tubal ligations performed under coercion or without informed consent.

Yet Latina women’s fertility remains a target of right-wing attacks. FAIR and its allies continue to argue (falsely) that hyper-fecund Latina women come to the United States in droves to give birth so that their children—derisively referred to as “anchor-babies”—can reap the benefits of big government’s welfare policies. To mitigate this problem, they propose amending the U.S. Constitution to deny citizenship for children born in the United States to undocumented parents, which is currently guaranteed by the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Huang points out that this project, if realized, would create a subjugable second class of “U.S.-born ‘alien’ children…a classification that would apply only to the offspring of immigrant women, the majority of whom are women of color” (401).

The institutionalization of such a racialized classification system would be utterly deplorable. It would undoubtedly visit unspeakable harm on many of the most vulnerable families in the United States; it would erect enormous barriers to access and gut protections for people already deprived of their rights and of recourse. But it would not be unique.

In the next part of this series, I endeavor to problematize the very notion of immigrants to the U.S., which is manifestly premised on racism and exclusion. This installment will discuss U.S. culpability in promoting sterilization as part of the ongoing genocide of Native American people.

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Demographic Winter: Right-Wing Prophecies of White Supremacy’s Decline

 And What They Mean for Reproductive Justice

This post is the first in a series examining the Right’s efforts to alter demographic trends by re-popularizing arguments and ideologies rooted in eugenics (read part two and three). Today, I discuss the ideas of white supremacy underpinning claims that the continuity of hinges on spurring population growth (and thus the cessation of contraceptive use).

Reproductive justice, as opposed to reproductive rights, is often defined as the ability to parent, not to parent, and—if one is a parent—to raise children in a safe and healthy environment. While reproductive rights have often been narrowly understood as the legal right to terminate an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy, an understanding of reproductive justice broadens our analysis in critical ways. It raises up the structural inequalities that render reproductive choice and care disproportionately unattainable for people of color, poor people, undocumented immigrants, trans* people, and other marginalized groups, and it reminds us that reproductive justice is inextricable from housing justice, from food justice, from transit justice. Indeed, the creation of a safe and healthy environment for all parents and all children requires the broad realization of social justice.

Unfortunately, full reproductive justice remains a distant prospect, and it was dealt a significant blow in this week’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have religious rights—rights that were hampered by the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception mandate. In addition to its manifold and ominous implications for civil rights, this decision poses a severe threat to low-income workers’ reproductive health care access. The decision reminds us—those of us with the privilege to be sheltered from a constant barrage of reminders—that attacks on reproductive justice are not confined to standard anti-abortion efforts.

The plaintiffs argued that because certain contraceptives take effect subsequent to fertilization, they are in fact abortifacients: “If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions,” wrote Justice Alito (2).

This argument is not merely a new stratagem to undermine the ACA. For years, initiatives such as the American Life League’s “The Pill Kills” campaign have sought to inflame conservative religious sentiment against contraceptives. Significantly, the Right has also undertaken much more subtle and insidious attempts to limit birth control access. Perhaps surprisingly, these attempts often are not explicitly rooted in religious conviction.

Many anti-contraceptive arguments couched in secular rhetoric are designed to incite fear, even panic, concerning not the deaths of “preborn children,” but rather the demise of entire populations. In her review of a documentary titled Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family (2008), Kathryn Joyce discusses how the film tacitly invokes right-wing Christian morality and ideology to undergird claims posited as “research-driven” and “based on social science alone.” The never-quite-stated thesis Joyce extracts from the documentary is that “birth control and the sexual revolution, and the widespread cultural decision of women to limit their fertility” are the egregious “sin” that will precipitate the fall of civilization. Political prospects such as marriage equality are, of course, easily subsumed into this nebulous menace.

The U.S. Right’s demographic agenda is highly racialized; in recent years, however, the doomsday argument for traditional family values has gained global currency. Its momentum is largely attributable to organizations such as the World Congress of Families (WCF), which has scant visible presence in Demographic Winter but enormous behind-the-scenes influence. Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian right-wing activist who has worked closely with WCF and Family Watch International, espouses anti-LGBTI and anti-reproductive health measures based substantially on tenuous correlations between demographic trends and development in sub-Saharan Africa. In a 2012 interview, Okafor decried contraceptives as superfluous before saying, “It is instructive that Nigeria and Ethiopia which have high fertility rates feature among the fastest growing economies in the IMF 2011 economic survey. The UN data is evidence that population growth does lead to economic prosperity.” Okafor has gone so far as to allege that the provision of reproductive health care in Africa is part of an imperialist Western “conspiracy,” a claim reproduced in the WCF newsletter. (Much of Demographic Winter was filmed at the 2007 WCF conference. On Tuesday, on the heels of the Hobby Lobby decision, WCF announced that their 2015 conference theme will be “religious liberty.”  The regional conference is to be held in Salt Lake City.)

That Okafor’s politics appear to be lockstep with the U.S. Religious Right is indicative of the latter’s success in imposing their agenda in the Global South. Furthermore, that Okafor cries imperialism while promoting the U.S. Right’s imperial agenda illustrates the Right’s facility with shaping narratives to obfuscate the presence of their own aims. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that Okafor’s work is entirely congruent with, let alone identical to, that of her U.S.-based collaborators. Her stance on demographic winter differs from that of the U.S. Right in one critical respect: for Okafor, augmenting population growth in the Global South is a priority; for the U.S. Right, it is a threat.

Because, as Joyce pointedly shows, nativism and racism constitute another hidden cornerstone of Demographic Winter and the reactionary movement it represents. She observes, “The concern is not a general lack of babies, but the cultural shifts that come when some populations, particularly immigrant communities, are feared to be out-procreating others,” a fear that “permeates nearly all of the current debate on demographic worries.” Joyce names a bevy of books published since 2001 that gravely forecast non-white immigrants supplanting white populations in the Global North. Joyce also cites an assertion made at the 2007 WCF conference by a U.S. anti-contraception activist, who pronounced that the children of immigrants are “too many, and too culturally different from their new countries’ populations to assimilate quickly … They are contributing to the cultural suicide of these nations as they commit demographic suicide.”

The white supremacy underlying demographic winter prophecies is also visible in the work produced by the Population Research Institute (PRI), a right-wing organization run by Steven W. Mosher. Mosher, a Catholic social scientist, specializes in Chinese demography, and PRI aims to dismantle “population control” efforts across the globe. Ostensibly, PRI is a natural ally to activists like Okafor. However, articles such as “How to debunk the myth of overpopulation in three easy steps,” written by Mosher and Anne Roback Morse and published on, deploy demographic winter rhetoric exclusively with respect to Europe in contrast to Africa, implicitly conjuring up the specter of white supremacy’s collapse. “Africa’s growth,” the authors assure, “is not something to worry about. Europe’s decline, however, is something to worry about.” Eventually, they warn, “the French, German, Italians and British will virtually cease to exist.”

The scare tactics employed by PRI, WCF, and other organizations on the Right exemplify the urgency of reproductive justice work. Right-wing efforts to chisel away reproductive freedoms are not random attacks on uteruses. They are carefully crafted elements of powerful Americans’ long-standing attempts to determine and regulate who ought to procreate and who ought not to.

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Works Cited

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Supreme Court of the United States. 30 June 2014. Web. 1 July 2014.

Joyce, Kathryn. “Review: Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family.” Kathryn Joyce. Web. 01 July 2014.

Mosher, Steven W., and Anne Roback Morse. “How to Debunk the Myth of Overpopulation in Three Easy Steps.” LifeSite. LifeSiteNews, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 July 2014.

Ramos-Ascensão, José. “The African Situation with Regard to ‘sexual and Reproductive Health'” Europeinfos: Christian Perspectives on the EU. Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU and the Jesuit European Office, July-Aug. 2012. Web. 1 July

“WCF Newsletter.” WCF Newsletter. World Congress of Families, Apr.-May 2010. Web. 01July 2014.




The Roots of the I.Q. Debate: Eugenics and Social Control

**This article appeared in the March, 1995 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

“Whatever the Jukes stand for, the Edwards family does not. Whatever weakness the Jukes represent finds its antidote in the Edwards family, which has cost the country nothing in pauperism, in crime, in hospital or asylum service.”
-Albert E. Winship,
Heredity: A History of the Jukes-Edwards Families
Boston, 1925

During the first three decades of this century, a small but influential social/scientific movement known as the eugenics movement extrapolated from the new science of human genetics a complex set of beliefs justifying the necessity for racial and class hierarchy. It also advocated limitations on political democracy. The eugenicists argued that the United States was in immediate danger of committing racial suicide as a result of the rapid reproduction of the unfit coupled with the precipitous decline in the birthrate of the better classes. They proposed a program of positive and negative eugenics as a solution. Positive genetics would encourage the reproduction of the better-educated and racially superior, while a rigorous program of negative eugenics to prevent any increase in the racially unfit would include compulsory segregation and sterilization, immigration restriction, and laws to prohibit inter-racial marriage (anti-miscegenation statutes).

I will argue that the eugenics movement of the early 20th-century was primarily a political movement concerned with the social control of groups thought to be inferior by an economic, social, and racial elite. I reject the contention that the movement was primarily scientific and apolitical. I have looked here primarily at the organized eugenics movement and its leading figures, rather than at the average rank-and-file follower within the movement.

My interest in the eugenics movement stems from my fear that the basic principles of the eugenics debate, even its most discredited aspects, are resurfacing in the 1990s. To revisit the eugenics movement of the early 20th-century is to be reminded of the harm the movement intended toward those members of society least able to defend themselves. History, in this case, may help to provide an antidote to contemporary manifestations of eugenicist arguments–the I. Q. debate and the right’s anti-immigrant campaign.

Any historical appraisal of the eugenics movement needs to step carefully to avoid imposing the values of the late 20th-century upon eugenicists, especially concerning the question of motivation. The legitimate, scientific framework of the eugenics movement, a mainstream view at the beginning of the century, has been for the most part abandoned by scientists in the years since then.

Similarly, to a great extent, racialist thinking, and in particular white supremacy, was neither questioned nor challenged among the white-dominated intelligentsia of the time. At the same time, the fact that white supremacist views were more acceptable in white society at the turn of the century still allows for gradations of focus and virulence; the question of the extent to which hereditarian arguments may have functioned as a pretext for a movement primarily concerned with the continuation of social and political dominance by upper-class, Protestant men of Anglo-Saxon background is unavoidable.

The roots of the eugenics movement have been traced variously to social Darwinism; social purity, voluntary motherhood, and the perfectionists; the naturalist tradition; Malthus and the neo-Malthusians; and the Progressive political and social movement.

This paper emphasizes instead that the roots of the eugenics movement can be traced to the 19th-century scientific racism movement. “Scientific racism” is a term capable of diverse definitions. For this discussion, I have adopted a slightly modified version of historian Barry Mehler’s definition:

“[Scientific racism is] the belief [often based on skin color, country of origin, or economic class] that the human species can be divided into superior and inferior genetic groups and that these groups can be satisfactorily identified so that social policies can be advanced to encourage the breeding of the superior groups and discourage the breeding of the inferior groups.”

It is possible to argue that notions of control by a racial and economic elite were key to the eugenics movement without embracing reductionist or conspiratorial theories that do damage to the diversity and scope of the movement.

It has been the diversity of the eugenics movement–the wide range of followers it was able to encompass–that has proved most difficult to explain. The eugenics movement was not monolithic: conservatives, progressives, and sex radicals were all allied within a fundamentally messianic movement of national salvation that was predicated upon scientific notions of innate and ineradicable inequalities between racial, cultural, and economic groups.

These scientific notions tended to maintain the status quo by obscuring the racial and class basis of poverty and advancement in the United States. The middle- and upper-class professionals of Anglo-Saxon descent who were leaders in the eugenics movement acted in and out of their own interests.

Those interests led to the development of a political program in which an extreme economic conservatism was marked by a virulent anti-communism linked to an embrace of the untrammeled, unregulated capitalist state. Some eugenicist leaders rejected democracy in favor of the corporate state and, in the 1920s and 1930s, several leaders of the eugenics movement were active in the promotion of German and Italian fascism.

The eugenics movement put forth a coherent, consistent social program in which eugenical sterilization, anti-immigrant advocacy, and anti-miscegenation activism all played crucial roles in the primary eugenicist goal of advancing social control by a small elite. Particularly now, when familiar eugenicist arguments echo within contemporary scientific and political circles, questions of motivation and intent are compelling.

Background of the Movement

The American eugenics movement came into being primarily through the efforts of Charles Benedict Davenport, a biologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University. While at Harvard as an instructor in the 1890s, Davenport became familiar with the early eugenicist writings of two Englishmen, the independently wealthy Francis Galton and his protégé Karl Pearson.

By 1869, Galton had published several articles and a book, Hereditary Genius, which argued that human traits, and particularly great ability, can be inherited from previous generations.

It was not until 1883 that Galton coined the term “eugenics,” and it was 1904 before he formulated his classic definition of eugenics as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.”

Galton had been tremendously influenced by his cousin, Charles Darwin, whose study of human evolution,The Origin of Species, was published in 1859. The eugenicists, led by Galton in England and Davenport in the US, were fascinated more by the idea of the inheritability of human traits than by Darwin’s focus on the evolution of species over time.

Charles Darwin thought highly of his cousin’s book on the inheritance of genius; he wrote, “I do not think I ever in all my life read anything more interesting and original.”

Eugenicists originally believed in the inheritability of virtually all human traits. Charles Davenport’s work provided a typical list of hereditary traits: eye color, hair, skin, stature, weight, special ability in music, drawing, painting, literary composition, calculating, or memorizing, weakness of the mucous membranes, nomadism, general bodily energy, strength, mental ability, epilepsy, shiftlessness, insanity, pauperism, criminality, various forms of nervous disease, defects of speech, sight, hearing, cancer, tuberculosis, pneumonia, skeletal deformities, and other traits.

Davenport is reported to have hypothesized that thalassophilia, love of the sea, was a sex-linked recessive trait because he only encountered it in male naval officers.

For the most part, the eugenicists emphasized inheritance and trivialized the importance of environment. Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, an important American eugenicist, was typical in his dismissal of environmental arguments:

“No doubt poverty and crime are bad assets in one’s early environment. No doubt these elements cause the ruins of thousands who, by heredity, were good material of civilization. But again, poverty, dirt, and crime are the products of those, in general, who are not good material. It is not the strength of the strong, but the weakness of the weak which engenders exploitation and tyranny. The slums are at once symptom, effect, and cause of evil. Every vice stands in this same threefold relation”

In the same vein, another eugenicist wrote:

“The. . .social classes, therefore, which you seek to abolish by law, are ordained by nature; that it is, in the large statistical run of things, not the slums which make slum people, but slum people who make the slums; that primarily it is not the church which makes people good, but good people who make the Church; that godly people are largely born and not made. . . .”

The US eugenics movement grew out of the American Breeders’ Association (later the American Genetics Association), which was founded in 1903 to apply the new principles of inheritance to the scientific breeding of horses and other livestock. In 1906, at Davenport’s urging, the ABA established a Eugenics Section (later the Committee on Eugenics). Stanford University president David Starr Jordan chaired the committee and Davenport was its secretary. These men and others active in the Committee on Eugenics (including the founders of the Nativist Immigration Restriction League, Robert DeCourcey Ward and Prescott F. Hall; Henry H. Goddard and Walter E. Fernald, who both joined a subcommittee on feeble-mindedness; Alexander Graham Bell; and Edward L. Thorndike) would form the core of the eugenics movement for the next 25 years.

The organized eugenics movement revolved around Davenport’s Station for Experimental Genetics, at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York, which itself came increasingly to focus on eugenical studies. In 1910, the Eugenics Record Office was established with Davenport as director and Henry H. Laughlin, key eugenicist and leader of the eugenical sterilization movement, as its superintendent. Two other important eugenics organizations were the Eugenics Research Association (with Davenport and Laughlin as its key members) and the American Eugenics Society (AES).

The Eugenics Research Association described itself as a scientific rather than political group and the AES, established in 1921, was visualized as the propaganda or popular education arm of the eugenics movement.

The eugenics movement advocated both positive and negative eugenics, which referred to attempts to increase reproduction by fit stocks and to decrease reproduction by those who were constitutionally unfit. Positive eugenics included eugenic education and tax preferences and other financial support for eugenically fit large families. Eugenical segregation and, usually, sterilization (a few eugenicists opposed sterilization); restrictive marriage laws, including anti-miscegenation statutes; and restrictive immigration laws formed the three parts of the negative eugenics agenda.

Virtually all eugenicists supported compulsory sterilization for the unfit; some supported castration. By 1936, when expert medical panels in both England and the US finally condemned compulsory eugenical sterilization, more than 20,000 forced sterilizations had been performed, mostly on poor people (and disproportionately on black people) confined to state-run mental hospitals and residential facilities for the mentally retarded. Almost 500 men and women had died from the surgery. The American Eugenics Society had hoped, in time, to sterilize one-tenth of the US population, or millions of Americans. Based on the American eugenical sterilization experience, Hitler’s sterilization program managed to sterilize 225,000 people in less than three years.

Eugenics’ Racial Bias

From the beginning, the eugenics movement was a racialist (race-based) and elitist movement concerned with the control of classes seen to be socially inferior. In proposing the term eugenics, Galton had written, “We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving the stock. . .to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”

Galton believed that black people were entirely inferior to the white races and that Jews were capable only of “parasitism” upon the civilized nations.

Karl Pearson, Galton’s chief disciple, shared his racial and anti-Semitic beliefs. For example, in 1925, Pearson wrote “The Problem of Alien Immigration into Great Britain, Illustrated by an Examination of Russian and Polish Jewish Children,” which argued against the admission of Jewish immigrants into England.

In the US, the eugenics movement started from a belief in the racial superiority of white Anglo-Saxons and a desire to prevent the immigration of less desirable racial stocks. In 1910, the Committee on Eugenics solicited new members with a letter that read, “The time is ripe for a strong public movement to stem the tide of threatened racial degeneracy. . . .America needs to protect herself against indiscriminate immigration, criminal degenerates, and. . .race suicide.” The letter also warned of the impending “complete destruction of the white race.”

Eugenical News, which was published by the Eugenics Research Association and edited by Laughlin, welcomed racist and anti-immigrant articles. At the Second International Congress on Eugenics in 1921, one of the five classifications of exhibits was “The Factor of Race.”

Similarly, the American Eugenics Society’s “Ultimate Program,” adopted in 1923, placed “chief emphasis” on three goals:

  1. a brief survey of the eugenics movement up to the present time;
  2. working out and enacting a selective immigration law;
  3. securing segregation of certain classes, such as the criminal defective.

The Eugenics Research Association included among the major issues its members addressed “[im]migration, mate selection. . .race crossings, and. . .physical and mental measurement.”

When the World War I-era IQ testing of all soldiers indicated that almost half of all white recruits were morons according to the newly developed Stanford Binet test, as were 89 percent of all black recruits, the eugenics movement seemed more important and believable.

Although some commentators questioned the validity of the test, and noted that questions on such topics as the color of sapphires and the location of Cornell University might reflect qualities other than intelligence, the statistics, when released, created great anxiety and gave the eugenics movement a substantial boost.

19th-Century Scientific Racism

The scientific racism movement of the mid-nineteenth century provided a number of important legacies to the eugenics movement. American scientific racism was primarily preoccupied with the attempt to establish that blacks, Orientals, and other races were in fact entirely different species of “man,” which the scientific racists claimed should be seen as a genus, rather than a species. The theory that the integrity of the human species derived from the creation of one Adam and one Eve was called monogenism or specific unity; monogenists believed that the races arose as a result of the degeneration of human beings since creation. The separate races were essentially the same human material, but different races had degenerated to different extents. Polygenists, by contrast, believed that the races were created separately in a series of different creations. The separate races were entirely different animals. The mid-century theory of polygenism, or specific diversity, was one of the first scientific theories largely developed in the US and was approvingly called “the American School of anthropology” by European scientists.

Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, a prominent natural historian of the 19th-century, was the most important promoter of polygenism. Agassiz, an abolitionist, insisted that his adoption of polygenism was dictated by objective scientific investigation. Nevertheless, historian Stephen Jay Gould’s translation of Agassiz’s letter to his mother in 1846 shortly after his emigration to the US, reveals a profound, visceral aversion to blacks.

Not surprisingly, Agassiz was also passionately opposed to racial miscegenation. He believed that racial inter-mixture would result in the creation of “effeminate” offspring unable to maintain American democratic traditions. Agassiz wrote:

“The production of half-breeds is as much a sin against nature, as incest in a civilized community is a sin against purity of character. . . .No efforts should be spared to check that which is abhorrent to our better nature, and to the progress of a higher civilization and a purer morality.”

In part because the classic definition of a species revolved around the ability to mate and produce children with each other but not with others, and in part because of a drive toward racial hierarchy, the questions of hybridization and fecundity were of great import to the early American scientific racists. For the eugenicists, these questions were also tremendously important. Much of the early scientific racist rhetoric on hybrids later reappeared in eugenicist writings where it came to form the basis of eugenicist arguments against racial miscegenation. The early concern with fecundity fueled later eugenicist claims that differential racial fecundity was leading to white racial suicide.

The eugenicist recapitulation of earlier scientific racist arguments was not cursory, but deep and enduring. In one of many examples, a 1925 bibliography on eugenics published by the American Eugenics Society recommended the book, Uncontrolled Breeding, Or Fecundity versus Civilization.

At the First International Congress of Eugenics in 1912, author V. G. Ruggeri, despite his concern with race-mixing, put forth Mendel’s monogenism to bolster his own argument in favor of monogenism; and Lucien March spoke on “The Fertility of Marriages According to Profession and Social Position.” The opening of Raymond Pearl’s lecture on “The Inheritance of Fecundity” made clear his position within this tradition:

“The progressive decline of the birth rate in all, or nearly all, civilized countries is an obvious and impressive fact. Equally obvious and much more disturbing is the fact that this decline is differential. Generally it is true that those racial stocks which by common agreement are of high, if not the highest, value to the state or nation, are precisely the ones where the decline in reproduction rate has been most marked.”


Family Studies, Social Darwinism, and Race Suicide

Eugenical family studies were an important component in the movement’s political development; family studies functioned as an objective, scientific basis for the twin myths of a feeble-minded menace and an impending white race suicide. The invention of feeble-mindedness, typically used as a term of art to cover broader issues related to social control, allowed the eugenicists to claim that social (and racial) classes were biological and hence immutable.

The first important eugenicist works in the US were a series of studies of American families supposedly plagued by hereditary feeble-mindedness, beginning with Richard Dugdale’s exposition of the Jukes family, published in 1877.

All of the family studies claimed to prove that a single feeble-minded ancestor could (and did) result in generations of poverty-stricken and degenerate offspring. The families in the studies were rural families, of Anglo-Saxon, Protestant descent, and for the most part, their lineage dated to the colonial settlers. The families were remarkably similar to the eugenicist activists in these traits; the main difference between the two was the poverty of the rural families. The equation by the eugenicists of poverty with degeneracy was quite explicit. Eugenicists believed that poverty was no more than a manifestation of inner degeneracy. Charity was therefore unlikely to lead the pauper out of poverty and, in fact, misguided charity might prove very costly to society. In the heightened tone that is common to writers in the family studies, one eugenicist wrote, “It is impossible to calculate what even one feeble-minded woman may cost the public, when her vast possibilities for evil as a producer of paupers and criminals, through an endless line of descendants is considered.”

Another writer said, for example, “A habit of irregular work is a species of mental or moral weakness, or both. A man or woman who will not stick to a job is morally certain to be a pauper or a criminal.”

In the same vein, a third wrote, “Pauperism and habitual criminality are respectively passive and active states of the same disease.”

Feeble-mindedness for the eugenicists was a designation that created a difference between the eugenicists and the families they studied. One group of social reformers described in detail the nature of the feeble-mindedness which they had found characterized prostitutes:

“The general moral insensibility, the boldness, egotism and vanity, the love of notoriety, the lack of shame or remorse. . .the desire for immediate pleasure without regard for consequences, the lack of forethought or anxiety about the future–all cardinal symptoms of feeble-mindedness–were strikingly evident.”

Thus the prostitute’s failure to adhere to social conventions of behavior for women is here called feeble-mindedness.

The deliberate and even fraudulent misrepresentations of the people in the family studies have been established. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, has shown that H. H. Goddard, author of The Kallikak Family, retouched photographs to make the Kallikaks appear mentally retarded.

Family studies were used to support the myth of the “feeble-minded menace,” which claimed the US was in imminent danger of being swamped by the degenerate and dangerous masses of the feeble-minded. When the feeble-minded menace was linked at the end of the 19th-century to the idea that the better stocks were failing to produce enough children, the idea of race suicide emerged. Race suicide captured the US imagination and lent support to the entire eugenics agenda.

The “race suicide” theory which developed during the first decade of the new century claimed that the greatly lowered birthrate of the better classes, coupled with the burgeoning birthrates of immigrants and the native-born poor, endangered the survival of “the race.” “The race” was clearly a term that referred to the white, Anglo-Saxon race and a deep racism permeated the racial suicide period from its beginning in 1900 to 1910. One classic racial suicide work is Robert Reid Rentoul’s Race Culture; or, Race Suicide? (A Plea for the Unborn), published in New York and London in 1906. Rentoul speaks of the “terrible monstrosities” created by racial intermarriage and points out that the Americans are “poor patriots” for repealing their racial miscegenation statutes.

The concept of the feeble-minded menace provided a way to make the rural families, who were neither institutionalized, foreign, nor “colored,” into people who were “different” from the eugenicists. Underlying the family studies and the myth of the feeble-minded menace was the theory of Social Darwinism, which assumed the existence of a struggle between the individual and society, and of an adversarial relationship between the fit and unfit classes. Eugenical family studies and social Darwinism both involved a transmutation of nature into biology and the eugenics movement frequently acknowledged its debt to Social Darwinism.

The deeply conservative implications of such philosophies included the rejection of government welfare programs or protective legislation on the grounds that such reforms as poorhouses, orphanages, bread lines, and eight-hour days enabled the unfit to survive and weakened society as a whole. From the beginning, the eugenics movement accepted the regressive implications of Social Darwinism. Karl Pearson believed that “such measures as the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, free medical advice, and reductions in infant mortality encouraged an increase in unemployables, degenerates, and physical and mental weaklings.”

Pearson’s friend, Havelock Ellis, known as a sex radical and free thinker, shared Pearson’s elitist views, writing in his 1911 eugenicist book, The Problem of Race Regeneration, “These classes, with their tendency to weak-mindedness, their inborn laziness, lack of vitality, and unfitness for organized activity, contain the people who complain they are starving for want of work, though they will never perform any work that is given them.” Ellis suggested in the same book that all public relief be denied to second generation paupers unless they “voluntarily consented” to be surgically sterilized.

One American eugenicist said harshly:

“The so-called charitable people who give to begging children and women with baskets have a vast sin to answer for. It is from them that this pauper element gets its consent to exist. . . .So-called charity joins public relief in producing stillborn children, raising prostitutes, and educating criminals.”

The economic conservatism of the movement was very clear. Faced with a social problem, the eugenicist leapt to the conclusion that it was the individual who must change to accommodate society (which is one reason why conservative commentators frequently argued that eugenics was a liberal movement committed to the supremacy of the community over the individual). The prevalence of the appeal to economics in eugenics writings led G. K. Chesterton to claim that the eugenicist was, at heart, the employer. Chesterton wrote:

“[N]o one seems able to imagine capitalist industrialism being sacrificed to any other object. . . .[the eugenicist] tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them, marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market.”

The eugenicists’ family studies were one aspect of the movement’s domestic program of scientific racism. The eugenics movement concentrated on differences: its roots in scientific racism looked to the differences between the white and other races, while the family studies created a distinction between fit and unfit white folks. At the same time, eugenicists and other scientific racists were discovering many different “races” among the foreign immigrants, all previously conceived as members of a single, “white” race.

The Eugenicist Role in Anti-Immigrant Organizing

The involvement of the organized American eugenics movement with the advocacy of immigration restriction was deep and long-standing. Although the organized anti-immigrant movement predated eugenical organizations by a few years, immigration restriction was from the beginning a key component of the eugenics program. For example, the American Eugenics Society published a wide variety of materials on immigration restriction and the 1923 “Original Ultimate Program to be Developed by the American Eugenics Society” listed immigration restriction as one of the top three goals of the society.

The first organized anti-immigrant group, the Immigration Restriction League, was founded in 1894 in Boston by a small group of Harvard-educated lawyers and academics; Prescott Hall and Robert DeCourcey Ward were the driving forces behind the League. The Immigration Restriction League was based on a belief in the superiority of the white races. Ward summed up the group’s philosophy when he wrote “the question [of immigration] is a race question, pure and simple. . . .It is fundamentally a question as to what kind of babies shall be born; it is a question as to what races shall dominate in this country.”

Most eugenicists agreed, and Yale Professor and prominent eugenicist Irving Fisher’s comment that “The core of the problem of immigration is. . .one of race and eugenics” was typical of the eugenicist position.

In the first decade of the century, the men of the Immigration Restriction League became active members of the Eugenics Section of the American Breeders’ Association and other eugenics organizations, focusing their attention primarily on immigration issues. The connection was so compatible that the Immigration Restriction League almost changed its name to the Eugenic Immigration League. Hall and Ward even had sample stationery drawn up with the new name, but found the Board of Directors was unwilling to adopt the name of a movement younger than its own.

In 1918, Davenport and his fellow eugenicist, and virulent racist, and anti-immigration activist Madison Grant (author of The Passing of the Great Race and The Alien in Our Midst) set up the Galton Society. The Society was established for “the promotion of study of racial anthropology” and from the beginning, immigration restriction was “a subject of much interest.”

As John Higham has noted, one strand of nativism in the US derived from a conviction that the immigrant was a political and social radical, importing communistic or anarchistic ideas into the United States. Grant and Davenport both shared this conviction and established the Galton Society in part to bar such foreign radicals. The independently wealthy Grant wrote to the other organizers, “My proposal is the organization of an anthropological society. . .confined to native Americans, who are anthropologically, socially, and politically sound, no Bolsheviki need apply.”

Other prestigious members of the Galton Society included Henry Fairfield Osborn (who wrote the introduction to Grant’s book) and Grant’s friend and protégé, Lothrop Stoddard. Like his friend Grant, Stoddard was a strong anti-communist. His book The Rising Tide of Color argued that Bolshevism was a dangerous theory because it advocated universal equality rather than white supremacy.

H. H. Laughlin, of the Eugenics Research Association and Eugenics Record Office, was also very involved in anti-immigrant work. He produced many pamphlets on immigration, including “Biological Aspects of Immigration,” “Analysis of America’s Melting Pot,” “Europe as an Emigrant-Exporting Continent,” “The Eugenics Aspects of Deportation,” and “American History in Terms of Human Migration.” Because Laughlin had been appointed the Expert Eugenics Agent for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization by the committee’s chair, Congressman Albert Johnson, many of these nativist pamphlets were published by the Government Printing Office in Washington, DC. In 1923, Johnson, a confirmed eugenicist, was appointed to the presidency of the Eugenics Research Association, a post held before him by Grant.

The immigration restrictionists were motivated by a desire to maintain both the white and the Christian dominance of the US. A year after the eugenicists’ victory in securing passage of the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act, which established entry quotas that slashed the “new immigration” of Jews, Slavs, and southern Europeans, Davenport wrote to Grant, “Our ancestors drove Baptists from Massachusetts Bay into Rhode Island but we have no place to drive the Jews to. Also they burned the witches but it seems to be against the mores to burn any considerable part of our population. Meanwhile we have somewhat diminished the immigration of these people.”

Similarly, the racial nature of the anti-immigration position was not veiled. In 1927, for instance, three years after the restrictive act of 1924 was passed, Grant, Robert DeCourcey Ward, and other eugenicists were still anxious to cut non-white immigration further. They signed a “Memorial on Immigration Quotas,” urging the President and Congress to extend “the quota system to all countries of North and South America. . .in which the population is not predominantly of the white race.”

The early 20th-century eugenics movement, often dismissed as a fad, provided a coherent and consistent political program to enforce the racial, class, and sexual dominance which was perceived to be under attack in American society. Its program has, in large part, reasserted itself in the late 20th-century, at a time when racial and economic elite dominance of US society is again under attack. The continuing vigor of scientific racism in the United States is in part a testimony to its strong, deep roots.