When It Comes to Birth Control and Eugenics, Clarence Thomas Gets It All Wrong

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger can be condemned for many things, especially her virulent ableism and classism. But her goal was not to eliminate the Black population, regardless of what Thomas insinuates.

[Photo: US Supreme Court Justice looks on during a hearing.]
In Thomas’ esteemed opinion, bans like the one at issue “promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.” To make his claim, Thomas conflates eugenics, which is an effort to “improve” the population by controlling who has kids and who doesn’t, with a choice that an individual pregnant person makes to terminate a pregnancy. They are not equivalent. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

If there were any question as to whether conservatives are coming for your birth control, Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky on Tuesday should lay the matter to rest: They are.

The Box case raised two questions: 1) Is it constitutional for Indiana to require health professionals to bury or cremate fetal tissue from miscarriages and abortion; and 2) Is it constitutional for Indiana to prohibit someone from obtaining a pre-viability abortion if their decision is based on the race, sex, or possible disability of the fetus?

The Court in a per curiam opinion answered yes to the first question and declined to hear the second.

The Court’s decision on the first question is certainly not ideal for people in Indiana who now have to deal with the ramifications of the fetal remains requirement. But it’s that second one—and, more specifically, Thomas’ musings about it—that should sound the alarm bells for anyone naïve enough to believe conservative Christians will be satisfied once they eradicate abortion.

In Thomas’ esteemed opinion, bans like the one at issue in Box “promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.” To make his claim, Thomas conflates eugenics, which is an effort to “improve” the population by controlling who has kids and who doesn’t, with a choice that an individual pregnant person makes to terminate a pregnancy. They are not equivalent.

Eugenics is about restricting someone’s reproduction. As Amanda Stevenson—who is a professor of sociology at University of Colorado Boulder and a family planning enthusiast—explained to me in an email, “eugenics is an ideology advocating for population-wide policies aimed at changing who has kids in order to ‘improve’ the population. It’s about removing or constraining individual reproductive choices.” It’s not about the choices individuals make about their own reproductive autonomy.

But that doesn’t seem to matter to Thomas; he goes all in. He carries on for pages about eugenics, birth control, abortion, and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. His goal in the concurrence is clear: to insinuate that Sanger cast her lot in with the racial eugenicists of her time who believed that birth control could be used to control the reproduction of Black people, and that Planned Parenthood is carrying on that mission to this day.

It isn’t, of course. Even if it were true that Planned Parenthood was founded to eliminate the Black populace—and trust me, it’s not—that has nothing to do with Planned Parenthood’s mission today.

I will credit Thomas this: He specifically notes that Sanger was opposed to abortion. So to all the anti-choice meme-makers who like to insinuate that Margaret Sanger personally built abortion clinics on every corner in every Black neighborhood in these United States, I have only this to say: neener neener.

However, that Thomas gets this one fact right is of very little import considering the many others that he either purposefully obfuscates or gets flat-out wrong.

Sanger can be condemned for many things, in particular the virulent ableism and classism inherent in her views on who should be sterilized and prevented from reproducing further. She believed that “reckless breeding” of the “feeble-minded” was “the great biological menace to the future of civilization.” She believed that Americans were “paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.” She believed that “morons” and “imbeciles” should be forcibly sterilized to ensure that they could not breed. And she also believed that these “morons” and “imbeciles” could not be trusted to properly use birth control.

But while this class of people—those she deemed unfit—sometimes included Black people, and while the way she talked about southern Black people was racist, her goal was not to eliminate the Black population.

As Dorothy Roberts notes in Killing the Black Body, “It appears that Sanger was motivated by a genuine concern to improve the health of the poor mothers she served rather than a desire to eliminate their stock. Sanger believed that all their afflictions rose from their unrestrained fertility, not their genes or racial heritage.”

Certainly, Thomas is correct in noting that Sanger “recognized the eugenic potential for her cause,” but the conclusions that he draws from that recognition are wrong. Indeed, a close reading of Sanger’s work defies the characterization that Thomas attempts to lay at her feet.

First, Thomas writes as if Sanger agreed with the racial eugenicists who saw birth control as a method of reducing or eliminating the Black population. He points to an essay Sanger wrote in which she says, “Like the advocates of Birth Control, the eugenists … are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.”

What Thomas leaves out is the very next sentence that Sanger wrote—one which is key to understanding Sanger’s association with mainstream eugenics, and how her advocacy for birth control was different: “Both are seeking a single end but they lay emphasis on different methods.” She writes that eugenicists emphasize “the mating of healthy couples for the conscious purpose of producing healthy children” and “sterilization of the unfit to prevent their populating the world with their kind.”

She continues:

We who advocate Birth Control, on the other hand, lay all our emphasis upon stopping not only the reproduction of the unfit but upon stopping all reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health. The eugenist also believes that a woman should bear as many healthy children as possible as a duty to the state. We hold that the world is already overpopulated. Eugenists imply or insist that a woman’s first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her duty to the state.

Thomas’s concurrence conveniently omits that context—context that was fairly feminist for her time.

That is not to say, again, that Sanger was an infallible feminist hero. While she could not be counted among the eugenicists who believed that racial betterment involved encouraging women of “superior stock” to reproduce, she could be included among the eugenicists who believed that people with disabilities should be prevented from doing so—even writing, “I personally believe in the sterilization of the feeble-minded, the insane and syphilitic.”

Thomas is undoubtedly counting on readers to look at the term “racial betterment” and assume that it’s some sort of Aryan talking point that involved exterminating Black people. But when she was talking about racial betterment, Sanger was referring to the betterment of the human race. And bettering the human race, in her view, would require eliminating not Black people specifically, but people with disabilities. In that regard, her views on eugenics were perfectly in line with the views that undergirded the Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell, the truly abhorrent case in which the Oliver Wendell Holmes sanctioned Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law and said “[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough,” referring to Carrie Buck’s mother who was “unfit” along with Buck’s child—a product of rape by Buck’s foster relative.

Again, this is horrifically ableist. And Sanger had no problem associating herself with deplorable people, even if she didn’t agree with their methods. At one point, she described an encounter with a person she deemed an “anti-Negro white man” in a 1945 interview with Earl Conrad for the Chicago Defender:

When we first started out an anti-Negro white man offered me $10,000 if I started in Harlem first. His idea was simply to cut down the number of Negroes. ‘Spread it as far as you can among them,’ he said. That is, of course, not our idea. I turned him down. But that is an example of how vicious some people can be about this thing.

Still, she was willing to talk to and associate with some of these “vicious,” racist people—including the KKK. And that willingness has been used as evidence of her personal belief in racial eugenics. But as long as people were amenable to hearing about birth control, Sanger would frame her crusade in whatever terms she needed to. Her audience may have wanted to reduce the Black populace, but she didn’t.

The framing of Thomas’ concurrence, however, suggests that she did want to reduce the Black population. This framing extends to his description of the Negro Project, which Sanger created in conjunction with some of the most prominent Black civil rights leaders of the time—Franklin Frazier, Walter White, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W.E.B DuBois—in order to bring birth control to the South. Thomas writes as if her mere advocacy for birth control was in and of itself racial eugenics. And he virtually ignores that Black women in the South wanted birth control and had taken their reproduction into their own hands since the days of enslavement, when women would self-induce abortions or even kill their newborns in order to save them from a life of slavery.

Clarence Thomas’s concurrence elides the difference between Sanger’s views of eugenics and the views of the eugenicists to whom she appealed during her birth control crusade. He writes about Sanger and the eugenicists who wanted to curb Black people’s reproduction as if they are one and the same. They weren’t.

It’s hard to read Thomas’s opinion as anything other than fearmongering about abortion and birth control being used to control the population. Indeed, he draws a direct line from eugenics to family planning in a way that makes family planning seem somehow nefarious: “Notwithstanding Sanger’s views on abortion, respondent Planned Parenthood promotes both birth control and abortion as ‘reproductive health services’ that can be used for family planning.”

He says it like it’s a bad thing. You can feel the disdain dripping from his words—and those quotation marks around “reproductive health services” are doing a lot of work—as he goes on to say that “with today’s prenatal screening tests and other technologies, abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics.”

Thomas’ opinion is in line with a lot of the nonsense one can read on websites like BlackGenocide.org. These are people who have made a cottage industry out of cloaking their desire to eradicate abortion as philanthropy for Black people. It helps them feel like they’re not racist—after all, they’re advocating for aborted Black fetuses!—and it’s easy to advocate for fetuses because it doesn’t require anti-choicers to actually do anything.

In fact, Thomas’ opinion was simply a more eloquent version of the arguments that random anti-choice trolls on Twitter throw at abortion rights activists. They feign concern about Black fetuses, but have no concern for Black babies, children, or adults. They paint people who get abortions as discriminatory monsters rather than individuals making private medical decisions.

As I wrote in my article on Sanger in 2015, scholars smarter than I am have been unable to agree on whether or not Sanger was capital-R racist. In my view, she held many racist viewpoints, in particular about Southern black people—viewpoints that were shared by Black thought leaders like DuBois. And whether or not she is a capital-R racist is of little importance to me because, as Roberts writes in Killing the Black Body, Sanger “promoted two of the most perverse tenets of eugenic thinking: that social problems are caused by reproduction of the socially disadvantaged and that their childbearing should therefore be deterred.”

Roberts continues: “In a society marked by racial hierarchy, these principles inevitably produced policies designed to reduce Black women’s fertility.”

Certainly, some people with disabilities do see pro-choice advocacy for the right to terminate fetuses with genetic anomalies as discriminatory, and advocates should not ignore that point for the sake of pushing back on bills that use people with disabilities as pawns in the abortion wars. Center for American Progress Senior Fellow for Disability Policy Rebecca Cokley recently noted that it is harmful that “those on the pro-choice side often use disability as a monster under the bed, framing our lives as lacking dignity, independence, or value.” In addition, the reproductive coercion of Black and brown people in the guise of “family planning” has a long and sordid history—one need only look, for example, at the ways in which Norplant was used to coerce and control the reproduction of incarcerated Black women.

Nevertheless, sex, race, and disability bans, like so many abortion restrictions, are simply a way for states to try to get around Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which prohibit bans on pre-viability abortions. They are designed to tug at the heartstrings, but they do not actually protect vulnerable people.

A conversation about the racist policies that Sanger promoted or seeded is quite a different conversation than the one that Thomas seems to want to have. In framing the conversation the way he does, he comes frighteningly close to outright saying that abortion and contraception—indeed family planning as a whole—are akin to eugenics. His opinion also dovetails with recent statements conservatives have made that birth control is an “abortion-inducing drug.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who will surely be on the bench when challenges to state laws criminalizing contraception wind up at the Supreme Court—and believe me, that day is coming—referenced those same statements during his confirmation hearing.

But a specific person’s individual decision to terminate a pregnancy—or to use birth control, or to abstain from sex—is not eugenics. It’s that person exercising bodily autonomy.

What’s apparent, though, is that bodily autonomy is just something that Thomas doesn’t believe in.