Considered from the perspective of social theory, Thomas pointed out, eugenics is rooted in social Darwinism--the application of the principle of "survival of the fittest" to human society.
Jean Vanier, who died last month at the age of 90, was the revered founder of L'Arche, an international organization for the intellectually disabled and those who cherish them. Vanier once wrote that a society that discards "those who are weak and non-productive" soon becomes "a society without a heart, without kindness--a rational and sad society, lacking celebration, divided within itself, and given to competition, rivalry and, finally, violence."
I thought of Vanier when reading a concurring opinion by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggesting that the intellectual impetus behind the movement in support of abortion is partly eugenic. The pro-abortion people naturally deny it, but that is all the more reason why Thomas has done us all a service in pointedly raising the issue.
On May 28 the Supreme Court declined -- for now -- to hear a case involving an Indiana law, opposed by Planned Parenthood, which banned abortions performed because of race, sex, or fetal disability, including Down Syndrome. The court expressed no opinion for or against the statute, which had been overturned by the Seventh Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It merely deferred taking a position until at least one more lower court weighs in on the constitutionality of such laws.
Justice Thomas agreed. But anticipating that a case meeting that condition will soon reach the court, he provided an opinion that sets out a brief history of the eugenics movement and its links to abortion. Inevitably, it focused largely on Planned Parenthood.
Considered from the perspective of social theory, Thomas pointed out, eugenics is rooted in social Darwinism--the application of the principle of "survival of the fittest" to human society. By the 1920s it had strong backing in the U.S. among "progressives, professionals, and intellectual elites." Harvard University served as the source of much pro-eugenics agitation.
Eugenics played a role in tough new immigration legislation in 1924. Three years later, in Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law mandating forced sterilization of mentally "unfit" individuals, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declaiming, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." (Justice Thomas points out in a footnote that the woman in the case, Carrie Buck, was of normal intelligence and had no medical record of any disability.) Twenty-eight states had such laws by 1931.
Although Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger considered contraception far preferable to abortion as a eugenic measure, others in the birth control movement took a more friendly view of abortion for eugenic goals. Even after disclosure of Nazi eugenic atrocities had cooled much enthusiasm for eugenics, future Planned Parenthood president Alan Guttmacher nevertheless endorsed eugenic abortion for "any pregnancy" that seemed likely to result in an "abnormal" infant.
And now? Now, Justice Thomas writes, thanks largely to prenatal technology, "eugenic goals are already being realized through abortion." Some numbers illustrate the truth of that. In Iceland, the rate of abortion for children diagnosed before birth with Down Syndrome is approaching 100%. In Demark it's 98%, in the United Kingdom 90%, in France 77%. And in these United States it is 67%--two out of three.
Abortion serves a variety of purposes that particular cultures consider eugenic. Eighty years after Margaret Sanger launched a "Negro Project" to cut down on black births in the South, the ratio of abortions per live births among African-American women in the U.S.is nearly 3.5 times the ratio for white women.
In his concurring opinion Justice Thomas says of the issues surrounding eugenic abortion "we cannot avoid them forever." Here's hoping.
- Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books. He is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and served as communications director for the U.S. Bishops.