Eugenics and the Supreme Court

eugenicsSlate senior editor Emily Bazelon has a really interesting article in this coming Sunday’s New York Times magazine. The article, which has been online for days now, is just an interview — but the subject is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The last time we wrote about Bazelon was to note that the liberal justice Ginsburg had approvingly cited Bazelon’s work in a dissenting opinion of the court’s ruling supporting a ban on partial birth abortion.

Anyway, the interview includes a bunch of interesting questions and answers. Here’s the exchange that caught my eye:

Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae -- in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.

The second excerpted question is interesting because normally I would make fun of any reporter asking a question, or series of questions, that could so easily be answered with a yes or a no. Usually reporters are taught to ask open-ended — or leading — questions.

And yet WOW did Bazelon get quite an interesting answer out of Ginsburg. (“Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”) What was that again? Populations we don’t want to have too many of? What is she talking about?

Unfortunately, and I have no idea why this is, Bazelon doesn’t follow up for clarification. I’m pretty sure that any time a Supreme Court justice talks about populations we don’t want to have too many of, that’s big news. It’s unclear whether Ginsburg is making an endorsement, a comment or registering a concern about whether the court wanted, in Roe, a method of eugenics that the government could use to reduce growth in certain populations that “we” don’t want to expand.

It’s downright bizarre that Bazelon didn’t ask for clarification. Imagine if, say, Scalia had talked about populations we don’t want to have too many of. And, in fact, this is lighting up the blogosphere.

ginsburgScott Ott, a conservative columnist at TownHall, explains why some people are interested in Ginsburg’s views.

Justice Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. In 1973, when the Roe v. Wade ruling legalized abortion nationwide, Ms. Ginsburg was an attorney active in so-called reproductive rights issues. If I understand her remarks to the NY Times correctly, Ms. Ginsburg thought a contributing factor to the Court’s Roe decision was concern for too much population growth among “populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”

I’ll grant the possibility that she may have been stating this ironically or tongue-in-cheek…not expressing her own misgivings about the multiplication of certain undesirable populations.

Nevertheless, it’s startling to consider that a practicing, liberal feminist attorney could labor for seven years under the misconception (puns intended) that a Supreme Court ruling was, in part, an expression of judicially-sanctioned racial discrimination (or at least of socio-economic discrimination). One would think that Ms. Ginsburg and her colleagues would have taken to the streets in defense of poor, minority women whose wombs had suddenly become chambers of ethnic cleansing. They did not protest.

Perhaps this shouldn’t just be of interest to conservatives and others concerned about eugenics. Perhaps some general interest newspapers should cover this as well.

Damian Thompson at the Telegraph agrees. In his “What the hell did Ruth Bader Ginsburg mean when she linked abortion and eugenics?”:

The mainstream media have been incredibly slow to pick up on a creepy comment by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a New York Times interview published today but flagged last week . . .

You might think the New York Times might want to trumpet its exclusive. But the mindset of that pompous, prickly, boring, self-regarding publication is so overwhelmingly liberal that it didn’t even realise it had a story on its hands.

It’s old news that Planned Parenthood has its roots in eugenics and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was a proud eugenicist. Still, pro-choice activists rarely talk about their support for abortion in terms of eugenics anymore. It’s just amazing that the mainstream media hasn’t noticed this quote — hidden, as it is, in the pages of one of the country’s biggest newspapers.

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  • Carl

    Did GR report on the release of new bits of the Nixon tapes a couple weeks back? Remember Nixon’s reaction to Roe v. Wade:

    “There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,” he told an aide, before adding, “Or a rape.” *

    If the thinking of the Nixons of the world had held sway, the current President would never have been born. Yet he supports abortion!

    It’s a crazy world, I tell ya.

  • http://apokalupto.blogspot.com David Hamstra

    What does this story have to do with religion and the press not getting it?

  • http://www.bedlamorparnassus.blogspot.com Magister Christianus

    I questioned this as well a couple of days ago in my post Populations We Don’t Want to Have Too Many Of. I wonder which populations need to be concerned that she is talking about them.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVID:

    If is impossible to separate debates about abortion and other life issues from religion, certainly in the US context. In fact, abortion has been the major subject of media-bias studies on religion and the news for several decades.

  • Dave G.

    It’s just amazing that the mainstream media hasn’t noticed this quote

    I suppose I would have to see some justification for the belief that it’s just amazing that the mainstream media hasn’t noticed this quote.

  • Dave

    so-called reproductive rights issues

    “So-called” here is the conservative equivalent of scare quotes in the mainstream media. The legal roots of Roe are in the contraception decisions of the ’60s, unequivocally reproductive-rights issues.

  • MichaelV

    “So-called” here is the conservative equivalent of scare quotes in the mainstream media. The legal roots of Roe are in the contraception decisions of the ’60s, unequivocally reproductive-rights issues.

    I’d say so-called is even stronger than scare quotes. But clearly calling it a reproductive-rights issue is one way to frame it, one that seems implicitly to endorse pro-choice perspective by focusing on only one part of the wider abortion issue.

  • Pingback: What did Justice Ruth Ginsburg mean when she said “populations that we don’t want to have too many of”? — Warren Throckmorton

  • Brian Walden

    The reporter should have not only asked who the populations we don’t want too many of are but also who is the “we” who decides which populations we don’t want too many of.

  • Davis

    Bazelon has explained how she interpreted Ginsburg’s comments. Here’s a discussion from the feminist blog, Jezebel.

    http://jezebel.com/5311192/justice-ginsburg-eugenics%E2%80%94feminist-criticism-of-planned-parenthood

    While it is true–as Mollie was quick to trumpet–that Sanger was not atypical of many people of her generation in supporting eugenics, by the time the Hyde Amendment came to the court, there was a shift in who found certain populations to be overbreeding and undesireable. Note Nixon’s support for abortion of mixed-race children. Conservatives were alarmed by the large numbers of Black children being born during the time Ginsburg was speaking (there was support among Southern Evangelicals for abortion rights for precisely this reason well into the early 1980s).

    This may be less about the support of Eugenics by early 20th Century progressives and more for the support of abortion to lower the Black birthrate by late 20th century Southerners.

  • East Texas

    What’s unclear to me is that Justice Ginsberg was personally concerned about “populations we don’t want to have too many of”. Here’s the whole section. I agree the reporter should have sought clarification:

    Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.

    It seems possible to read her as saying that she perceived a concern, rather than having a concern herself.

  • Jerry

    Davis, thanks for that informative link. This is one of those cases where words on a page can easily be misleading.

  • Carl Vehse

    “I wonder which populations need to be concerned that she is talking about them.”

    Well, MC, maybe you should ask someone who is “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences.”

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    Re comment #10 by Davis: He posted from the journalist’s blog where she says that southern evangelicals supported abortion rights for eugenics reasons on to the early 80s.

    I did a bit of googling–not the end-all of historical research and only have a sense that perhaps this was true through mid-century.

    The pro-life (opposing abortion) movement was born through Catholic laity, and evangelicals were indeed late-comers to the movement. But they were on board by the time of Reagan it seemed. Now, whether eugenics held them back or simply a protestant view of human sexuality, permitting contraception, played a part I don’t know.

    Does any know whether Ms. Balezon is correct in her claim?

  • Davis

    Ginsburg was speaking, first, of the thinking in 1973 when Roe was issued. There’s no question that abortion was not a priority for Evangelicals in 1973. Evangelicals didn’t begin to joing the pro-life fold until Falwell began talking about it in the late 1970s. Even then, there was strong concern about Evangelicals joining with Catholics in the abortion criminalization efforts. The issue of aligning with the pro-life movement split Southern Baptists as late as 1980.

  • Dave

    But clearly calling it a reproductive-rights issue is one way to frame it, one that seems implicitly to endorse pro-choice perspective by focusing on only one part of the wider abortion issue.

    I didn’t get into anyone’s polemical motives in framing a discussion. I merely pointed out the parallel nature of “so-called” and scare quotes.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m not the least bit surprised at a liberal finally giving away the real reason for much of the liberal support for abortion. I’m also not surprised at much of the media’s virtual ignoring of what should have been a “green light” for more investigation and coverage.
    I was a campaign ward co-ordinator for George McGovern and a liberal Democrat many years ago. But I was also a pro-life Catholic. And the more I heard behind the scenes racist comments by elitist white liberal types on the campaign, the more I soured on things Democrat and things liberal.

  • Mary

    I’m not surprised that Emily Bazelon didn’t ask her a follow up to dig deeper into Ginsburg’s answer, Bazelon’s cousin is the very extremist Betty Friedan. As an aside, Bazelon has written numerous articles attacking citizen’s rights to feel they have a right to attend college in the US if they are qualified, over foreign nationals, especially at taxpayer funded state colleges and universities. Bazelon doesn’t like to address the point that she was admitted to Yale as a legacy student, her grandfather was Judge David L. Bazelon, very powerful and influential, and also a flaming, radical leftist.

  • Mary

    Bazelon is dead wrong about southern evangelicals supporting abortion on eugenics grounds, she’s lying. I remember the political discussions and those same southern evangelicals were very vocal about their being against abortion, and their elected representatives and senators reflected that.

    You also have to consider that up until the late ’70s, early ’80s, there wasn’t the presence of huge Christian movements that had a lot of public attention.

  • http://doccochran.wordpress.com/ Doccochran

    To answer the question of Southern evangelicals, I think it is incorrect to say that eugenics played a role well into the early 80′s. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention began passing resolutions back in 1971. The resolutions in 1971 and 1974 each attempt to “avoid extremes” in the debate, hoping to find some middle ground between all abortion is murder and abortion on demand. However, by 1976, the resolutions are clearly pro-life. All of the resolutions make an appeal to the sanctity of human life, even the 1971 resolution (albeit conflicted).

  • Mary

    Davis, Bazelon is attempting to make excuses for Ginsburg’s instance of foot in mouth. In the ’70s and ’80s, evangelicals in the south were not looking on abortion as a means to keep the black population down, that is a bold faced lie. Now, republicans, and in fact all conservatives were against welfare benefits and did speak out in favor of personal responsibility, but that is not advocating for abortion. Also, southern evangelicals at the time were advocating alternatives to abortion, including adoption. Also, there would have been a huge fracas over that between southern black evangelicals and white ones, that would have definitely made the news, and it never would have gone away.

    Again, there was no support from them for abortion for anyone. I’d like to see a source for what you’re claiming, please cite one.

  • Davis

    Mary,

    In 1973, Richard Nixon said that abortion was appropriate in the case of an interracial relationship.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/us/politics/24nixon.html

    Now, if Richard Nixon–who was fairly enlightened on civil rights–held the position that abortion was appropriate for race-based reasons, it means this wasn’t an out in right field view. We are less than a decade past the Jim Crow and Nixon’s views were not atypical for what you found in the South.

  • http://www.ksvaughan2.byregion.net Karen Vaughan

    And I don’t think it was just a racial issue. There was for many years a concern that welfare mothers were reproducing in order to get higher stipends (no matter that the extra money would never cover the extra costs.) And remember the fear of the waves of crack babies? That meant drug-addicted and perhaps brain-damaged children would be born and dumped on the public dime. Before the crack babies, there were similar concerns about mothers on heroin or speed. While many will associate race with those concerns, I suspect socio-economic and costly health concerns allowed conservatives to support abortion for quite some time.

  • str

    How is the support for abortion by Nixon/Southerners/Conservatives relevant to the fact that a Supreme Court justice is a eugenic, antihuman racist?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Str, while I agree with your characterization of Justice Ginsberg, I think the point you are missing is that the people who are bringing up Nixon and Southern Baptists are trying to answer the question about who Ginsberg meant when she said “we”.

  • Darel

    We should all note that the eugenics movement of the 1960s and 1970s had far more freedom of action in places like India than in the US, and that the eugenics dimension of Roe v. Wade should not be separated from a general concern on the part of the professional class of that time over global “overpopulation”.

    While there certainly is a racial dimension to the eugenics movement, it is primarily concerned with social class. When Ginsberg said “populations that we don’t want to have too many of”, in historical context she most likely means “the poor”, whether poor urban American blacks or poor Appalachian whites or poor rural Punjabis or whatever.

    Read Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commmons” (1968) and you’ll know the mindset of these people very well.

  • Peggy

    str,
    the journalist herself brought up southern evangelicals in an excerpt posted by reader Davis.

  • str

    Matt & Peggy,

    yes, sure. But why should such tactics of excusing RBG by painting “all cats as grey” or even proposing that she meant only other bad guys or even as trying to potray pro-lifers as hypocritical because supposedly “nixon = conservatives = southern baptists = evangelicals = christians = pro-lifers” be accepted?

    Darel,

    whether RBG or anyone else hates and tries to enforce her twisted views on “the blacks” or “the poor” or “the Jews” hardly makes it any less despicable.

  • Davis

    But why should such tactics of excusing RBG by painting “all cats as grey” or even proposing that she meant only other bad guys or even as trying to potray pro-lifers as hypocritical because supposedly “nixon = conservatives = southern baptists = evangelicals = christians = pro-lifers” be accepted?

    Why should the tactic of accusing Justice Ginsburg of supporting eugenics be accepted?

    Mollie wanted context and and explanation of why the MSM wasn’t following the Freeper and pro-life meme on the story. The link to Jezebel provides context. If we are going to link Ginsburg to eugenics, it’s only fair to have a complete picture of race/social class and those who have supported abortion in the past.

  • Dan

    The quote absolutely and undeniably ties Justice Ginsburg to eugenics. She admits that at the time Roe was decided she thought that Roe would be used to reduce minority/poor populations; notwithstanding this — because of this? — she supported Roe. At an absolute minimum she consciously aided and abetted an effort at eugenics. No amount of backpedaling now can rescure her from her admissions.

    As to whether some Protestants were late to the game: what difference does it make today if today they have admitted the errors of previous ways and now are pro-life? If Justice Gisnburg votes to overrule Roe, all will be forgiven for her too.

  • Dave

    Dan, your attempt to link RBG to eugenics doesn’t hold water. She could be of the opinion (personal) that eugenics was a motivator for the original decision, and uphold that decision in an opinion (judicial) based on completely different grounds. This is a blogosphere tizzy to which the mainstream media have no obligation to respond.

  • thinkingabovemypaygrade

    …But most media people share with Judge Ginsberg the post World War 2 eugenics lite view of human life they learned in college

    Briefly…. People are more considered “the problem” than “the solution” to the world’s problems. Both voting records and court decisions show diminished views of human worth. And if the legislator/judge has to choose between humans or “carbon footprint”—guess who is going to be stepped on!

    Eugenics is tied to abortion and to Planned Parenthood – as a thorough internet search into the original writings (especially pre World War 2) will easily show. Look for old writings on Gutenberg by Francis Galton—who named the Eugenics movement…and influenced US eugenicists and their admirers (like Margaret Sanger).

    Briefly, Hitler’s full court press concentration camp EUGENICS temporarily scared people off of eugenics…before 1945, eugenics was a popular semi racist concept lots of people all over the world bought in to.
    Including some quality persons who would repudiate eugenics after WWII.

  • Peggy

    Getting to the journalistic point, Bazelon, the interviewer, in response to the blogosphere’s asking Qs about where RBG is coming from, provides cover to RBG by claiming, apparently falsely, that the evangelicals were supportive of eugenics through the early 1980s. They did at one time, but not as recently or as consistenly as Ms. Bazelon claims. That’s an unfair slander.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Peggy,

    Did Bazelon say that about evangelicals and eugenics? I missed that link . . .

  • Dave

    Thinkingabovemypaygrade, you simply cannot infer RBG’s attitude toward eugenics because of her age. That’s completely false logic.

    This is a right-wing blogosphere tizzy, in which this board has become entrained, with no anchor either in reality or in the media/religious issues that GR normally addresses.

  • Peggy

    Mollie: I get this from a comment and link by #10 Davis. Davis commenter at #10 posted from a feminist blog at which Bazelon explained this interview further. That is what I am understanding Bazelon to mean. Davis provided the link in his comment.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    Unless you ignore the various and sundry groups — across the spectrum — who are interpreting Ginsburg’s comments in various and sundry ways, how could you say that this is good journalism?

    I actually don’t know what Ginsburg meant. Which is the point — Bazelon should have asked some follow-ups along with her softballs.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Peggy,

    I read that link and while Bazelon’s answer struck me as wildly inadequate, I don’t think she said anything about southern evangelicals. That’s just Davis going off, I think.

  • Larry “the grump” Rasczak

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933. How can she be so seemingly unaware that in many people’s books SHE is a member of a “… population that we don’t want to have too many of?”

    “First they came for the populations don’t want to have too many of….

  • Larry “the grump” Rasczak

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933. How can she be so seemingly unaware that in many people’s books SHE is a member of a “… population that we don’t want to have too many of?”

    “First they came for the populations don’t want to have too many of, but I said nothing, because I was on the Supreme Court….”

  • Davis

    Ginsburg didn’t say anything about southern Evangelicals. I was trying to expand on Bazelon’s analysis of the comment. Since people were concerned about too many people on welfare and since there was a sense among some people–including southern Evangelicals–that Blacks were “breeding” too quickly during the era when Roe was decided, Ginsburg’s “we” makes sense in the global “we”

  • Dave

    Mollie #37, I’m not defending the journalism of the interview. I’m criticizing the massive rush to judgement on no evidence whatsoever. (Over the course of my life I’ve gotten used to disagreeing with “various and sundry groups;” I was a young adult in the Sixties.)

  • Peggy

    Davis,

    Is it you who is saying that the So. Evangelicals were pro-eugenics until the 80s, or are you claiming that Ms. Balezon is asserting that?

  • Davis

    It is my claim that southern Evangelicals viewed abortion as a response to Blacks and other poor people having too many kids (I wouldn’t use the term eugenics), used as context to explain Bazelon’s analysis.

  • str

    Davis,

    “Why should the tactic of accusing Justice Ginsburg of supporting eugenics be accepted?”

    It is not accusation – RBG does it herself in broad daylight!

  • str

    PS. And yes – RBG said “we”, firt person plural.

    Apart from any clear distancing this includes herself.

    Not that this view is suprising of course – only the openness is surprising.


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