Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene The Natural Family

“Reproductive Rights” and Eugenics

An article from The Nation was recently making the rounds having to do with a putative “scare tactic” employed by Republicans in the debate over abortion, and particularly the abortion of babies who test positive for genetic disorders such as Down syndrome. The article lacks a good deal of argumentative cogency in my view, but that’s not my point here. What caught the attention of some observers were the headline and subheadline, which look like this:

“Republicans Are Using Fear of Eugenics to Attack Reproductive Rights. Cute kids with Down syndrome, like my son, should never be an excuse to deny access to an abortion.”

The implication is of course that such a connection (viz. that between eugenics and “reproductive rights”) is a dishonest move intended to “throw shade” (to use the parlance of our time) on an otherwise noble cause. As the conclusion of the article puts it:

This is the moment in which we need to build ties across communities. “Being pro-neurodiversity, anti-eugenics, and pro-choice,” Neumeier said, “it feels like we’re in a race against time to establish through our advocacy that we’re all valuable and deserving of support.” What comes next isn’t knowable, but the GOP anti-choice bills are doing their part to make sure the future unfolds in fear, division, and silence.

Now, leave aside what you happen to think about “reproductive rights.” (While you’re at it, leave aside the fact that eugenics was itself once widely viewed as a noble cause.) You may even leave aside the question of whether there may in fact be people who try to be both “anti-eugenics” and “pro-choice” (while also leaving aside the question of whether that can be done coherently).

The problem is the dismissal out of hand of any possible connection between the two. The truth is that those who have such a “fear” have good historical grounds for doing so: historically, modern notions of “reproductive rights,” far from having no connection to the eugenicist movement, actually emerge from it.

Take, as one example, the physician Havelock Ellis, the “co-author of the first medical textbook in English on homosexuality in 1897” who “also published works on a variety of sexual practices and inclinations, as well as transgender psychology.” (He is often credited with inventing the term “homosexual,” though he disavowed it: “‘Homosexual’ is a barbarously hybrid word, and I claim no responsibility for it.”)

In his 1912 work The Task of Social Hygiene, he argues for a cult (as it were) of eugenics:

And Galton, who recognized the futility of mere legislation in the elevation of the race, believed that the hope of the future lies in rendering eugenics a part of religion. The only compulsion we can apply in eugenics is the compulsion that comes from within. All those in whom any fine sense of social and racial responsibility is developed will desire, before marriage, to give, and to receive, the fullest information on all the matters that concern ancestral inheritance, while the registration of such information, it is probably, will become ever simpler and more a matter of course.

(If you see an analogue here to genetic testing, you’re not wrong. Ellis says in a footnote, “Dr. Toulouse has devoted a whole volume to the results of a minute personal examination of Zola, the novelist, and another to Poincaré, the mathematician. Such minute investigations are at present confined to men of genius, but some day, perhaps, we shall consider that from the eugenic standpoint all men are men of genius.”)

He goes on:

And if he finds that he is not justified in aiding to carry on the race the eugenist will be content to make himself, in the words of Jesus, “a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake,” whether, under modern conditions, that means abstention in marriage from procreation, or voluntary sterilization by operative methods. For, as Giddings has put in, the goal of the race lies, not in the ruthless exaltation of a super-man, but in the evolution of a super-mankind. Such a goal can only be reached by resolute selection and elimination.

And another footnote:

Sterilization for social ends was introduced in Switzerland a few years ago, in order to enable some persons with impaired self-control to be set a liberty and resume work without the risk of adding to the population defective members who would probably be a burden to the community. It was performed with the consent of the subjects (in some cases at their urgent request) and their relations, so requiring no special legislation, and the results are said to be satisfactory. In some American States sterilization for some classes of defective persons has been established by statute, but it is difficult to obtain reliable information as regards the working and the results of such legislation.

He then goes on to connect the question directly to what he calls the “woman question” and the “woman movement.” Sound familiar? You don’t have to answer. It seems to me that detailed exegesis of the passages above is unnecessary; they speak for themselves.

One might wish to wave all this away. Genealogy, after all, isn’t determinative of truth. Fair enough. But guess what? Eugenics and abortion are still closely connected, and with respect particularly to the very genetic disorder in question in The Nation‘s article: Down syndrome. Thus Iceland boasts of eliminating the condition through abortive means:

“We don’t look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended.

“We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication… preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder — that’s so black and white.

“Life isn’t black and white. Life is grey.”

So does Denmark. The UK appears to be moving in that direction as well.

The moral? Sometimes, the past is not a dead letter after all, even if its victims are.


By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.