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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