Acton Institute Powerblog

Yes, abortion is about race, but not in the way progressives think

(Image credit: Associated Press)

Roe v. Wade has been overturned and bad arguments in defense of unrestricted abortion abound. What everyone needs now is a little history lesson. […]

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As I was watching a film with my son the other day, we began to hear chanting below us. We looked out the window and saw protesters marching in the streets shouting, “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! The white man has got to go!” The protesters were themselves white. The protest was in response to the ruling handed down by the Supreme Court on June 24, overturning Roe v. Wade and handing back to state legislators the responsibility for making laws regarding abortion. The “white man” chant was a reference to the fact that most of the men who sit on the Supreme Court happen to be white (as they were, it should be noted, when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973).

What has been interesting to see in terms of the fallout of the SCOTUS decision has been how race has been used to justify the need for access to abortion. One New York congresswoman recently asserted (on Twitter) something like this, proclaiming that the “poor and marginalized” will somehow suffer most. It is a commonplace among educated, progressive elites to insist that black and Latina women will now struggle to get access to abortions in ways that white women will not. This is a curious way to frame the discussion, considering the racist history of abortion laws in the United States, which have traditionally targeted black, indigenous, Hispanic, and immigrant groups in efforts to curb their reproduction. In fact, Charles C. Camosy recently noted that one’s attitude toward abortion will largely be informed by social class, meaning that progressives elites’ views are not in line with the majority of those they claim to represent. The irony here points to the significant disconnect between those who are outraged over the ruling last Friday and the facts of history, which are contrary to what popular pundits and politicians are saying on TV and online. It also highlights the continuous need to defend the dignity of the person in a free society.

To be clear, abortion has been around since the beginning of world history, though in the United States it has a very ugly and racist history. The modern debate about abortion goes back to the so-called Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This era was marked by a centralized approach to American government that was fueled by an ideology known as eugenics, an outgrowth of Darwinian theory that viewed certain races as higher on the “evolutionary scale” than others (or, to quote Wiki, eugenics is “a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population, historically by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior or promoting those judged to be superior”). In order to respect the “survival of the fittest,” some races simply needed to be prohibited from breeding (although why the “fittest” wouldn’t continue to survive regardless remains unclear). Historian Thomas C. Leonard explores this history in his book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, & American Economics in the Progressive Era. Leonard explains the role that eugenics played in the formation of top-down policies and social engineering. Many notable philanthropists and politicians, including President Theodore Roosevelt, bought into at least some aspects of the eugenicist program. In fact, John D. Rockefeller III founded the Population Council, which was rooted in eugenicist theories. Rachel Ferguson, in her new book Black Liberation Through the Marketplace, writes that, “It cannot be overstated just how academically acceptable, and indeed popular, eugenics was in America during the first three decades of the twentieth century.” She adds, “In short, far from being a minority position among white American progressives, eugenics was central to their worldview.” Birth control was part of this “worldview” and particularly promoted by figures like Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and a firm believer in the eugenics project. Moreover, during the Progressive Era many black and indigenous women, as well as certain immigrant groups, were sterilized against their will, atrocities still remembered by many in those communities. Despite this, even the great black scholar W.E.B. du Bois advocated for access to abortion as a way to curb poverty. These eugenics programs also gave legitimacy to Jim Crow laws in the South and were used by Nazi Germany to justify their own eugenics projects.

What’s missing from most people’s ideas about abortion in America are the names of those who were staunchly against abortion. In an article for Reason magazine, Jesse Walker points out that Senator Ted Kennedy was once staunchly pro-life, and that as late as 1976 Jesse Jackson had an anti-abortion stance. In fact Jackson argued that abortion represented an attack on the black population in the United States, a position that Walker notes was also held by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and ’70s.

The larger problem that abortion poses for a free society is that it is a blatant attack on the dignity of the human person. Every human being, beginning at conception as a human person, is created in the image of God and consequently has an inherent dignity and value. Human beings are to respect this God-given dignity when developing policies that affect the greater society. The problem of eugenics and its components, such as abortion, is that it begins with a flawed anthropology that elevates one race (or class) above others to the point that it is justifiable to discourage “lesser” groups from reproducing, even to the point at times of doing so against their will. Ironically, the “pro-choice” side in this debate downplays the pressures a “progressive” culture imposes on individuals to make only one choice.

Not everyone, thankfully, has forgotten the facts of history or argues their position in the same way. For example, in an interview with progressive journalist Bari Weis, Yale law professor Akhil Amar maintained that while he supports abortion rights legislation, he acknowledges that Roe v. Wade was erroneously decided and that abortion was not a right that was protected under the U.S. Constitution as understood in its original context. He also defended the integrity of Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett against those who suggest that they lied in their confirmation hearings when asked about Roe v. Wade. Amar did not feel the need to distort the facts of history to defend his own position regarding abortion; instead, he made an intellectually honest defense of his views.

At the end of the day, the outrage against the end of a bad law is uncalled for, though in today’s discourse it is almost impossible to have a civil discussion about such heated topics like abortion. If there is something worth arguing about, however, it is getting the history of the abortion rights movement correct and not allowing the narrative to get hijacked by those who are either ignorant of the real role race and class played in its history or who would simply like this history to remain forgotten.

David Mendoza

David Mendoza is a member of the Acton Institute’s 2022 Emerging Leaders class. He is a third year at Westminster Seminary, California, studying historical theology. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, writing, and working on his car.