What the Pro-Life Movement and the Eugenics Movement Have In Common

As good, intellectual human beings with logic and reason and all the resources of past thinkers at our demand, we often like to destroy our opponents by…calling them Hitler.  It’s such a great argumentative shortcut.  Straight for the jugular.  Because we believe that Hitler and Nazi Germany were cruel and evil and we stand from our lofty peak of wisdom condemning everything about them.

We tend to forget that every technique used by Nazi Germany for race purification was also used in our own country.  True, our mass murder wasn’t on the same scale. We only killed thousands of Native Americans, not millions.  And true, our incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II wasn’t to the same scale of cruelty as we saw in concentration camps in Germany.  But what we really tend to forget is that the whole eugenics part of Hitler’s plan was actually approved of and touted by many Western intellectuals and leaders.  Eugenics was pretty popular for awhile, until that awkward Holocaust thing happened, of course. Then it sort of slunk away into the nastier corners of white supremacy and dared not flaunt itself.

Eugenics is family planning for the whole human race, with the government determining who should reproduce and who shouldn’t.  Mixed-race marriage was outlawed so as to prevent dilution of the white race.  A number of groups were at risk of forced sterilization so they wouldn’t pass on their supposedly faulty genes: the poor, criminals (or at least the imprisoned, whether guilty or innocent), the mentally challenged or mentally ill, anyone who didn’t fit a typical gender binary or straight sexual orientation, and women deemed hysterical or promiscuous.  Eugenics was considered a legitimate field of study and a legitimate way to control society.  But that was back in the early 1900’s, nothing we would have to worry about today, right?

Imagine my surprise when I heard of a prison in California where female inmates were pressured into sterilization.  I’d hoped we were beyond that.  I’d hoped we were beyond the horribly classist (and probably racist) arguments used to defend the practice.  Doctors and prison officials claimed that it would be less costly to the state to sterilize female inmates than to pay for welfare to support the hypothetical future children of these inmates, were they to have more children once they were released from prison.  They also feared that inmates would become repeat offenders in an attempt to return to prison in order to receive healthcare for later pregnancies.

Something about that scenario took my mind from prison corridors to the corridors of power.  And I began to realize that there was one argument, one tone shared between anti-choice legislators and the prison doctor pressuring women to have tubal ligations.  “We know what’s best for you and your body,” they say. “We know who should have children. It’s not your choice.  You have no choice.  You don’t rule your body, we do.”

Anti-choice people would recoil from this argument. They believe that pro-choicers have more in common with Hitler. They blatantly and repeatedly compare abortion to the Holocaust.  I happen to believe that a person’s decision to not carry a pregnancy to term isn’t even on the same moral spectrum as the torture and murder of millions of people, but so long as anti-choicers believe (against all common sense) that meaningful personhood begins at conception, it will be impossible to convince them differently.   But they must concede this point: both eugenics and forced pregnancy/birth revolve around the state’s right to choose, robbing the individual of their own personal choice.

Eugenics and anti-abortion proponents alike want to take life decisions out of the hands of silly uterus-owners who don’t know what’s best for their own lives.  Eugenics wants to make decisions of who should reproduce and who shouldn’t based on state interests, while anti-abortion proponents want to make those decisions based on religion.  But whatever the basis, the principle remains: you don’t make your own reproductive choices.  Autonomy is not a value espoused by either group.  Only the ideal, the state or the religion, is valuable, and your will must bend to it.

Are there cases where people are pressured into having abortions?  Of course there are.  But that’s not what pro-choice advocates want.  We want each person to have the resources and knowledge to make informed and safe reproductive choices.  We’d like each person to only consult whoever they believe is qualified to help with this decision, doctors, partners, parents, and so on, without unnecessary interference.  And we want to have a world of wanted, loved, and cared for children, children who have food, and water, and clothes, and shelter, and education.  Forced sterilization and forced pregnancy are dead ends.

Personally, I’ve decided that (at least for a while) I don’t want children.  I came to that well-informed decision without the help of any politicians or activists.  Medical professionals will help me carry out that plan, but I don’t need input from the North Carolina state legislature (as much as they’re dickishly trying to intrude on my reproductive organs).  I made that decision for a number of personal reasons, having nothing to do with what would be good for the state or what would line up with the dominant religion of our country.  And I want everyone to have the chance, the information, and the resources to make their own reproductive plan and carry it out. That’s what it means to be pro-choice.


Edit 02/11/2014: Since my awareness of racism in America has only recently been developed, I left out the horrifying statistics on forced sterilization of black and Native women in America.  Even today there are many women alive in the United States who were forcibly sterilized by the government for entirely racist reasons.  This is why many women of color are hesitant to join the mainstream white feminist movement. The white feminist rhetoric centers around abortion, fighting against the pressure we feel to reproduce, without ever addressing the white supremacy inherent in that social pressure.  When we fail to recognize the different experience women of color have now and have historically had surrounding sexuality and reproduction, we fail to develop a fully intersectional narrative and activism.

One thought on “What the Pro-Life Movement and the Eugenics Movement Have In Common

  1. The anti-choice movement has something else in common with the eugenicists of the past. “Positive” eugenics was about using state power to encourage “desirables” to reproduce. In Nazi Germany, this was done by giving financial incentives to people who had children, and by restricting access to birth control and abortion. Of course, these incentives and restrictions only applied to those who were approved of by the state. Here’s a link for more information: http://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/women-in-nazi-germany/

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