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Audrey Farley recently earned a PhD in English at University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied twentieth-century American literature and culture. She recently completed a fictional manuscript about one of the first patients to receive insulin and is now working on a biography of heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt, whose 1936 sterilization case transformed the eugenics movement. Her writing has appeared or will soon appear in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Longreads, Narratively, Lady Science, Public Books, ASAP, and Marginalia Review of Books.

We Still Don’t Know How to Navigate the Cultural Legacy of Eugenics

Illustration by Tom Peake

Audrey Farley | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,381 words)


On May 28, Justice Clarence Thomas issued an eyebrow-raising opinion. It concurred with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold an Indiana law that requires abortion providers to follow a certain protocol to dispose of fetal remains and prohibits abortions on the sole basis of a fetus’s sex, race, or disability. It wasn’t the justice’s position that caught attention, but rather his method. In speaking to the law’s second provision on selective abortions, Thomas launched into a history of eugenics, the debunked science of racial improvement that gained popularity in the early decades of the 20th century.

Arguing that abortion is “an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation,” the justice offered a lengthy discussion of the origins of the birth-control movement in the United States. In this discussion, written for the benefit of other courts considering abortion laws, Thomas explains how Planned Parenthood grew in tandem with state-sterilization campaigns, providing the foundation for the legalized abortion movement. (As historians corrected, legal abortion preceded birth control, as it was not regulated until the 19th century.) The justice cites the disturbing rhetoric of Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, who wrote in The Pivot of Civilization that birth control was a means of reducing the “ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.” While conceding that Sanger did not support abortion, Thomas nonetheless argues that “Sanger’s arguments about the eugenic value of birth control in securing ‘the elimination of the unfit’ apply with even greater force to abortion, making it significantly more effective as a tool of eugenics.”

Thomas does not offer concrete evidence that American women actually abort fetuses solely because of sex, race, or disability. Nor does he explore the possible reasons for abortions related to these criteria, such as financial hardship or the lack of societal support for individuals with chronic conditions. His grievance with abortion boils down to this point: the practice is ill-borne. This claim is inaccurate, for reasons that historians swiftly noted; it also obscures the fact that eugenics did in fact initiate many traditions in this country, not all of which are perceived to be heinous today. Thomas’s incautious opinion, which echoes other voices in the abortion debate, unwittingly invites a more nuanced discussion of eugenics’ legacies.

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