Eugenics in Roe v. Wade
by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe
Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the book The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics, pp. 151-153.
The 1973 Supreme Court decisions that ended all legal protection of unborn children were based on eugenics. Despite that, comments about the decisions usually focus on privacy and women’s rights, not on eugenics. So we should look carefully at the ways in which eugenics shows up in the decisions.
(1) The appearance of eugenics in the abortion decisions that is easiest to see is the reference in a footnote to Buck v. Bell, the 1927 case that opened the floodgates for sterilizing people who were considered to be unfit. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court said that the Constitution protects a “right to privacy” and that the decision to have an abortion is an exercise of this right. But, the Court stated, the right to privacy is not absolute; it can be limited in some cases, such as vaccination and sterilization. So the abortion decision was not about women’s rights; it cited a case permitting forced sterilization.
(2) The abortion decisions were written by Justice Harry Blackmun. His approach to abortion follows the lead of Glanville Williams. Glanville Williams, who taught law at Cambridge University, was a member of the Eugenics Society. In 1954, the Eugenics Society voted to support the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), which set out to remove legal restrictions against abortion. Williams became president of the ALRA from 1962, and was successful within a few years; the British law was changed in 1967.
The longest part of the decision written by Justice Harry Blackmun was his history of abortion laws. This is not a bizarre approach, but it is not the obvious approach either. If it was his intention to discuss abortion at length before examining the case that had come to the Supreme Court, he could have written about the development of the child, or about the methods of abortion, or about various birth control methods. He decided to dwell at length on the history of abortion laws. This is noteworthy, because this is the approach taken by Glanville Williams, in his book The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law, which Blackmun cited.
A startling aspect of Roe v. Wade is its insistence that laws against abortion are recent. But this view is taken from Glanville Williams. Williams wrote: “It is not generally realized that this rule is not older than the beginning of the last century.” Blackmun wrote: “It perhaps is not generally appreciated that the restrictive criminal abortion laws in effect in a majority of states today are of relatively recent vintage.”
The Hippocratic Oath is a stumbling block for historians who want to argue that only Christians oppose abortion. Williams and Blackmun deal with the Hippocratic Oath in different ways. Williams, incredibly, simply skips over it; he quotes Hippocrates on some other matter, but does not mention the Oath. Blackmun addresses it, but finds a way to set it aside. He explains that it represented a minority view among the Greeks, but was later taken up by Christians.
(3) Most importantly, the whole idea of humanity accumulating over time, from zero person at conception through various levels of value in each trimester up to 100% person at birth, is eugenics. The idea of evolution through stages from insignificance to humanity is pure eugenics, based on Darwin’s theories. The whole trimester scheme in Roe v. Wade, with different rules at three stages in pregnancy, is blatantly arbitrary, and that has always struck pro-lifers as a fatal flaw in the decision. But eugenicists are not bothered by arbitrary decisions, since their view is that rights are invented by society, by a social contract based on consensus, not given by God.
Eugenics devalues humans by rating people on a sliding scale. There are different sliding scales, but they all dehumanize vulnerable people and justify various crimes against humanity. The eugenics in Roe v. Wade is not a sliding scale based on racism; it does not assert that whites > yellows > reds & browns > blacks. And it is not a sliding scale based on IQ testing, placing the highly intelligent over the normal, the normal over morons, and morons over imbeciles. It is like the sliding scale in evolution, from protozoa to vegetable life to animal life to mammals to primates to savages to civilized mankind.
Roe v. Wade reflects a belief in the idea that each individual passes through developmental stages that imitate evolution: egg and sperm become a zygote, which becomes a blastocyst, then an embryo, then a fetus, then an infant, then a child, then an adult, then an old person, then a corpse. Of course each person goes through different stages in life; the critical question is whether the person’s worth also rises and falls. The 1973 decisions on abortion reflect the idea that size and weight and complexity— and value and rights—all accumulate gradually.
For more excerpts from this book, see:
For more of our blog posts on racism, see:
The Poor Cry Out for Justice, and We Respond with Legalized Abortion (Graciela Olivarez)
More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting (intersectionality)