Abortion-Eugenics Discourse in Dobbs: A Social Movement History

by Reva B. Siegel & Mary Ziegler

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Eugenic talk about abortion has spread in the last half century. Amongst Black Americans, there have been intergenerational debates about whether birth control and abortion pose threats to community or might play a role in community uplift. In this Essay, we show how antiabortion advocates have responded to these debates by depicting abortion as eugenic. For decades antiabortion advocates have spread race-equality arguments for the criminalization of abortion that explain racially disparate abortion rates as caused by intentional discrimination—often by a shadowy figure named Margaret Sanger—rather than by structural racism. We follow this abortion-is-eugenics argument from the streets to the pages of the United States Reports, where it appears in the much-studied 2019 decision of Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky and in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The abortion-is-eugenics argument offers a justification for criminalizing abortion designed to appeal to those unconvinced by fetal-protective arguments, suggesting that criminalizing abortion is necessary to achieving racial justice.