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Ginsburg's Remark Stirs an Old Debate: Abortion, Eugenics and the Meaning of Margaret Sanger

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posted on Jul, 22 2009 @ 04:03 PM
There is a disquieting reason Ruth Bader Ginsburg's defenders have been denying, however implausibly, the clear meaning of the Supreme Court justice's recent remarks about the history of abortion law, and that reason is this: Historically, eugenics has always been a significant component of the intellectual underpinnings – and political impetus – of the movement to legalize abortion.
Ginsburg rekindled this ancient memory, and not inadvertently, in an interview with journalist and lawyer Emily Bazelon that was published in The New York Times Sunday magazine on July 7. Bazelon's colleague, Hanna Rosin, touted the interview the day before, writing on her blog, "Our own Emily has a fantastic and revealing Q & A with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg." That word "revealing" proved to be quite an understatement.
In case you missed it, the relevant quote came while the two women were discussing the history of jurisprudence that came after Roe v. Wade. Despite some concern that poor women would be pressured into having abortions, the case law worked out the other way. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that states were under no obligation to fund abortions, and in a 5-4 1980 decision, Harris v. McRae, the high court upheld a congressional ban against using Medicaid funds for abortion.
"Yes, the ruling about that surprised me," Ginsburg told Bazelon. "Frankly, I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn't really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong."
Melinda Henneberger, my Politics Daily colleague, wrote about this interview on Friday, skeptically relaying Bazelon's claim that Justice Ginsburg didn't really mean the words "populations that we don't want to have too many of" -- or, rather, that the pronoun "we" meant other people, not Ginsburg herself. As you can see from her post, Bazelon's explanation struck Melinda as willfully obtuse. But this is hardly the first time prominent pro-choicers have had to engage in semantic gymnastics to obscure a longtime underlying rationale for their position that is neither politically nor morally correct.
In the early part of the 20th century, pioneers in the birth control movement routinely cited poverty, disease, physical disability, mental acuity, and even racial heritage as reasons to support their cause. In her 1922 book, "The Pivot of Civilization," Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League, an organization that would become Planned Parenthood, opens Chapter 4 with this salvo: "There is but one practical and feasible program in handling the great problem of the feeble-minded. That is, as the best authorities are agreed, to prevent the birth of those who would transmit imbecility to their descendants."
Chapter 4 of that manifesto is actually titled "The Fertility of the Feeble-Minded," and in it, Sanger goes on with some passion about the cascading societal problems caused by those with "feeble" minds, by which she seems to mean those with lower-than-average IQs, persons otherwise identified as "morons" "imbeciles" and "mental defectives."

It appears on close reading that she isn't necessarily talking only about those with mental disabilities, but also about uneducated members of what sociologists today call the underclass. And who will identify such persons, and coerce them, presumably, to submit to forced sterilization? Well, Sanger quotes approvingly from a doctor of that era named Walter E. Fernald, who wrote:
"We now have state commissions for controlling the gipsy-moth and the boll weevil, the foot-and-mouth disease, and for protecting the shell-fish and wild game, but we have no commission which even attempts to modify or control the vast moral and economic forces represented by the feeble-minded persons at large in the 9/07/22/ginsburgs-remark-stirs-an-old-debate-abortion-eugenics-and-th/
Sick Sick people who follow this way of thinking.


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