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A Dark Past
Contraception, abortion, and the eugenics movement.


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Jonah Goldberg

Sanger believed — prophetically enough — that if women conceived of sex as first and foremost a pleasurable experience rather than a procreative act, they would embrace birth control as a necessary tool for their own personal gratification. She brilliantly used the language of liberation to convince women they weren’t going along with a collectivist scheme but were in fact “speaking truth to power,” as it were. This was the identical trick the Nazis pulled off. They took a radical Nietzschean doctrine of individual will and made it into a trendy dogma of middle-class conformity. This trick remains the core of much faddish “individualism” among rebellious conformists on the American cultural left today. Nonetheless, Sanger’s analysis was surely correct, and led directly to the widespread feminist association of sex with political rebellion. Sanger in effect “bought off” women (and grateful men) by offering tolerance for promiscuity in return for compliance with her eugenic schemes.

In 1939 Sanger created the above-mentioned “Negro Project,” which aimed to get blacks to adopt birth control. Through the Birth Control Federation, she hired black ministers (including the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr.), doctors, and other leaders to help pare down the supposedly surplus black population. The project’s racist intent is beyond doubt. “The mass of significant Negroes,” read the project’s report, “still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes…is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit.” Sanger’s intent is shocking today, but she recognized its extreme radicalism even then. “We do not want word to go out,” she wrote to a colleague, “that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

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It is possible that Sanger didn’t really want to “exterminate” the Negro population so much as merely limit its growth. Still, many in the black community saw it that way and remained rightly suspicious of the Progressives’ motives. It wasn’t difficult to see that middle-class whites who consistently spoke of “race suicide” at the hands of dark, subhuman savages might not have the best interests of blacks in mind. This skepticism persisted within the black community for decades. Someone who saw the relationship between abortion and race from a less trusting perspective telegrammed Congress in 1977 to tell them that abortion amounted to “genocide against the black race.” And he added, in block letters, “AS A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE I MUST OPPOSE THE USE OF FEDERAL FUNDS FOR A POLICY OF KILLING INFANTS.” This was Jesse Jackson, who changed his position when he decided to seek the Democratic nomination.

Just a few years ago, the racial eugenic “bonus” of abortion rights was something one could only admit among those fully committed to the cause, and even then in politically correct whispers. No more. Increasingly, this argument is acceptable on the left, as are arguments in favor of eugenics generally.

In 2005 the acclaimed University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt broke the taboo with his critical and commercial hit Freakonomics (co-written with Stephen Dubner). The most sensational chapter in the book updated a paper Levitt had written in 1999 which argued that abortion cuts crime. “Legalized abortion led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime.” Freakonomics excised all references to race and never connected the facts that because the aborted fetuses were disproportionately black and blacks disproportionately contribute to the crime rate, reducing the size of the black population reduces crime. Yet the press coverage acknowledged this and didn’t seem to mind.

In 2005 William Bennett, a committed pro-lifer, invoked the Levitt argument in order to denounce eugenic thinking. “I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could — if that were your sole purpose — you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.” What seemed to offend liberals most was that Bennett had accidentally borrowed some conventional liberal logic to make a conservative point, and, as with the social Darwinists of yore, that makes liberals quite cross. According to the New York Times’s Bob Herbert, Bennett believed “exterminating blacks would be a most effective crime-fighting tool.” Various liberal spokesmen, including Terry McAuliffe, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, said Bennett wanted to exterminate “black babies.” Juan Williams proclaimed that Bennett’s remarks speak “to a deeply racist mindset.”

In one sense, this is a pretty amazing turnaround. After all, when liberals advocate them, we are usually told that abortions do not kill “babies.” Rather, they remove mere agglomerations of cells and tissue or “uterine contents.” If hypothetical abortions committed for allegedly conservative ends are infanticide, how can actual abortions performed for liberal ends not be?

Some liberals are honest about this. In 1992 Nicholas Von Hoffman argued in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Free cheap abortion is a policy of social defense. To save ourselves from being murdered in our beds and raped on the streets, we should do everything possible to encourage pregnant women who don’t want the baby and will not take care of it to get rid of the thing before it turns into a monster… At their demonstration, the anti-abortionists parade around with pictures of dead and dismembered fetuses. The pro-abortionists should meet these displays with some of their own: pictures of the victims of the unaborted — murder victims, rape victims, mutilation victims — pictures to remind us that the fight for abortion is but part of the larger struggle for safe homes and safe streets.



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