Strange Bedfellows: Abortion and White Supremacy

The two have gone hand in hand for centuries

Strange Bedfellows: Abortion and White Supremacy
Protesters take part in the Women’s March and Rally for Abortion Justice on Oct. 2, 2021, in New York City. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

As Americans cast their votes in the 2022 midterm elections, the future of abortion access is on the ballot in five different states and a contentious issue in the congressional races of dozens of others.

“As a physician, I’ve been in the room when there are some difficult conversations happening,” said Pennsylvania Republican Senate nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz during a debate with his Democratic opponent John Fetterman last week.

“I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all,” he continued. “I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward, so states can decide for themselves.”

Listening to the possible next senator from Pennsylvania — and a former physician, at that – couch abortion access as an issue of “states’ rights” recalls the days following the Dobbs decision in June, when the right to access an abortion was suddenly stripped away in 13 different states and called into question in 13 others. While many justified the historic decision as shifting abortion rights from a federal to a state issue, others were ready to use it to fuel the fire of the culture wars.

At a rally for former President Donald Trump, Republican U.S. Rep. Mary Miller announced in her rural Illinois region that the decision was “a historic victory for white lives.” While she later said she had meant to say a “historic victory for life,” the words were still haunting in the context of a racially-motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, that took place around the same time.

It was not the first time that controlling the right to access abortion had been discussed in terms of controlling racial demographics. Earlier this year, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, Matt Schlapp, traveled to a global Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest, Hungary, where Hungarian President Viktor Orban praised the U.S. for restricting abortion, proclaiming that “forced birth” is the next frontier of the “Great Replacement.” The latter is a trope of the far right suggesting that whites are demographically threatened — that they will, in a matter of decades, yield their status as the majority race in the West because of immigration and higher birth rates among nonwhites. It was a uniquely sinister statement reflecting nativist anxieties. If native-born women are unable to access abortion, the argument goes, there is a lower risk of immigrant populations outnumbering non-immigrants in future.

Meanwhile, online message boards popular with the far right, such as Truth Social and Gab, were heaving with the battle cries of the culture wars. “Why Not Ban These Assault Weapons?” read one, the text carefully photoshopped over an array of speculums and intrauterine devices, the message still fresh mere days after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. “What a great way to end Pride Month,” commented another, which felt like a particularly painful jab at the LGBTQ community at such an acute political moment with gender at the center.

There is now a distinct possibility that Republicans will take back control of both the House and Senate, which means that the anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and anti-gender politics culture wars — which have been characterized as everything from a critique of identity politics to full-on support for the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 — could intensify. With this in mind, I became curious about the history of the anti-abortion movement and white supremacy, and how it has been used to control the demographics of the United States throughout its history, from the moment British pilgrims first arrived to the present day.

In many ways, the politics of abortion access and white supremacy have gone hand in hand ever since the colonists first arrived, laying the foundations of inequality through the transatlantic slave trade as they decided the future of the United States of America. Indigenous communities saw bodily autonomy as sacred and frequently used herbal contraceptives and abortifacients. At first, colonial women sought abortions using similar methods, but many also frowned upon these practices, as colonial women were supposed to be populating the nation. Many of the first anti-abortion laws actually took the form of poison control legislation, which criminalized ingesting large amounts of herbal abortifacients with the aim of inducing a miscarriage.

Meanwhile, enslaved women were chewing on cotton root to induce miscarriages, often after being raped by slaveholders or forced to breed. While white women were seen as the mothers of a nation, enslaved women’s wombs were seen as a factory to generate more indentured labor, a return on a slaveholder’s investment. Medical records show that plantation doctors were perplexed by enslaved women’s knowledge of their reproductive systems and punished women of childbearing age who were mysteriously unable to reproduce. Unsurprisingly, white women’s reproductive health was treated very differently. While enslaved women were pressured to go back to work as quickly as possible after giving birth, white women were afforded rest.

But it was not until the Civil War and afterward that abortion was seen as a moral issue and Black women, who had frequently acted as midwives during the antebellum period, started being pushed out of midwifery. Horatio Robinson Storer, a prominent physician who aspired to “professionalize” women’s healthcare, started publishing smear campaigns against midwives, spreading the idea that their practices were “barbaric” and “unsanitary” and that overseeing childbirth should fall under the purview of trained medical professionals. Through leading the Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion, Storer popularized the idea that life begins at conception, while most midwives — and even the Roman Catholic Church — believed it began at “quickening,” the moment that a woman first feels the fetus move, allowing a grace period for abortion. Promoting the notion that life began at conception allowed Robinson to urge the American Medical Association (AMA) to lobby for abortion to be deemed illegal nationwide, at every stage of a pregnancy. By the end of the 19th century, it was.

Whether intended or not, this crusade came with racial undertones. Wresting away women’s healthcare from midwives left many Black women out of a field that they had passed on for generations. Lobbying the AMA to pass a rule that demanded that anyone practicing gynecology and obstetrics be a member automatically excluded both women and Black people, since only men and whites could be AMA members.

Storer’s desire to manipulate racial demographics then became even more apparent. As soon as the Civil War was over, he authored a book titled “Why Not?” to persuade white, middle-class women from New England to build large families to repopulate the nation, after so many soldiers’ lives had been lost to battle. “This is a question that our women must answer,” he wrote, suggesting that, since Black people were now free and Black children could no longer be enslaved, it was the responsibility of white women to ensure the racial demographics did not shift unfavorably. “Upon their loins depends the future destiny of this nation.”

Meanwhile, the destiny of the nation was also being shaped by immigrants. With the exception of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, there were very few immigration restrictions at the turn of the 20th century and politicians were increasingly concerned by the numbers of Greek, Italian and Jewish immigrants arriving at Ellis Island who did not fit the mold of a white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant America.

These anxieties quickly entered the reproductive realm. While eugenics began as a fringe idea, peddling the notion that humans could selectively breed to “stamp out” undesirable traits, soon prominent eugenicists, such as Harry Laughlin, started lobbying Congress to pass anti-miscegenation laws and immigration restrictions to enshrine these ideals into law. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of a “race suicide,” parroting Storer’s fear that, while Anglo-Saxon “American” women were having fewer children, everyone else was having more. Abortion was already illegal, but soon concern over who was and was not reproducing led to the 1924 immigration quotas, which severely limited immigration from Southern Europe, South and East Asia and the Middle East, while leaving Western Europe largely untouched. Then, as now, controlling immigration and access to abortion went hand in hand, enforcing and reinforcing racial hierarchies in the U.S. to shape its demographic future so as to uphold white supremacy.

Yet these ideals did not fall neatly along party lines. Many of the most prominent proponents of a woman’s right to control her reproductive health latched onto eugenics theory, pushing the idea that access to contraception could keep poor and “unfit” women from having more children. Margaret Sanger, who is thought of as a champion of reproductive freedoms and known for popularizing the term “birth control,” is also renowned for promoting the idea that poor and disabled women should not reproduce and allying with the eugenics movement to further her cause. While some historians attribute this to Sanger’s experience growing up in a poor family of 11 and a genuine desire to empower women by helping them to escape poverty, others point out that she spoke with the women’s arm of the Ku Klux Klan and ignored several other unsavory aspects of the eugenics movement for her own political gain.

Meanwhile, the Black community was divided over whether birth control would eliminate the economic barriers of racial injustice or further enforce the political agendas that were being guided by white supremacy. W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP and among the most prominent Black American civil rights leaders in the early 20th century, argued that Black families should embrace contraception as a means of economic empowerment and worked alongside Sanger to spread information about contraception in Black communities. Others, meanwhile, condemned it, such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, claiming it attempted to “interfere with the course of nature and with the purpose of God in whom we believe.” Still others suspected that white proponents of birth control were trying to orchestrate a “race suicide” of their own, spreading information in Black communities to discourage people from starting families.

Often, these conspiracies were rooted in truth, particularly when forced sterilization — a practice that started gaining popularity following the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case in 1927, which argued that “imbecility, epilepsy and feeble-mindedness” are genetic and inmates should be forcibly sterilized to prevent them from passing on those traits — became common among poor white people and then, after institutions were desegregated, disproportionately affected people of color.

“None of these laws were directed at racial, ethnic or religious minorities,” Dr. Alexa Minna Stern, the founder of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, pointed out to New Lines, mentioning that while “feeble-minded” or “sexually deviant” were used to describe candidates for the procedure, these labels often functioned to sterilize sex workers or even white women who showed sexual desire for Black men.

“But it was a racialized logic that middle-class and professional white people were using to police poor white people,” she continued, explaining that, along with poor white communities, Mexican communities in California were soon being disproportionately sterilized as well. “It wasn’t hard for them to move this from the realm of middle-class whites policing poor whites onto bodies of color.”

Over the next few decades, each chapter of U.S. history revealed a discrepancy between how the reproductive health of white women was treated compared with everyone else. As the U.S. dealt with the Great Depression in the early 1930s, white women were offered handouts, such as the Aid to Dependent Children program, to ensure they could still start families. Meanwhile, poor Black women in the South and Mexican women in the Southwest were often coerced into hysterectomies to ensure they would not deplete welfare benefits and be a burden on the state.

During World War II, Adolf Hitler explicitly borrowed these tactics, commending the American laws that created and enforced a two-tier society before going on to use them to commit atrocities on German Jews, gypsies, LGTBQ individuals and anyone else deemed to be “feeble-minded” or disabled by the Nazi regime. At the same time as the U.S. government condemned the Nazis, it continued to expand the practice of forced sterilizations in prisons and mental institutions. After the war, in the 1950s, as more and more of these places started desegregating, sterilization started to disproportionately affect poor Black women, who, according to research from the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, were soon sterilized at three times the rate of white women and twelve times the rate of white men.

“Ironically, many of these institutions were segregated [before legal segregation was deemed unconstitutional], so whites had the ‘privilege’ of being sterilized,” said Stern. “There was a backlash, playing out at very local levels,” she continued. “You see it in the rise of sterilizations of Black women, whose bodies and potential families were seen as threats to the state.”

Black women were not the only victims of medical experiments. During the 1950s, Harvard professor Gregory Pincus famously went to Puerto Rico to test a prototype of the birth control pill, fawning over the way the island provided a nearly perfect controlled environment for such an experiment, since travel to and from it was difficult and rare. Meanwhile, the Indian Health Service — a federal agency tasked with improving the health and welfare of the Native American population — forcibly sterilized more than 25% of the Native American population. Nearly three-fifths of the victims of forced sterilizations in California — which led the nation in enforcing the practice — were of Mexican heritage. During 1973 — the year the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade — a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center resulted in the revelation of the full extent of forced sterilizations across the United States, estimated at between 100,000 and 150,000. Nevertheless, over the next three years, more than 3,000 Native women were forcibly sterilized. While the laws that permitted forced sterilizations were repealed in 1979, the practice occasionally continues to this day, with at least 40 asylum-seekers alleging they received unnecessary gynecological procedures, including forced hysterectomies, in a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Georgia as recently as two years ago.

“We never got rid of the racist and eugenic baggage of the past,” said Stern, reflecting on how the same logic that inspired prison wardens to forcibly sterilize unwanted populations during the 1920s is reflected in an institution such as ICE allegedly pressuring immigration detainees into unneeded hysterectomies today. “It was a perfect storm. What could have been more reproductive health services and support from the state became racist healthcare and ideas of who is fit to parent.”

Disturbingly, these narratives are being crafted into weapons to blindly fight our culture wars. While it is easy to trace Tucker Carlson’s fear-mongering over demographic change or Matt Schlapp’s eagerness to unite the global far right over abortion and immigration restrictions to the eugenicists of the early 20th century, it is far more difficult to wrestle with the way the pro-choice movement weaponized the same toxic ideologies for its own cause. One of the most memorable memes from the days following the overturn of Roe v. Wade was a picture of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with a caption that he has done more for Black lives than “the entire Black Lives Matter movement,” which cleverly deployed the anti-racist language of the “woke” left to make an anti-abortion argument.

Another young influencer, named Savannah Craven, claps back at the pro-choice influencers by sharing bits of the dark history of eugenics and forced sterilization, arguing that placing Planned Parenthood clinics in Black neighborhoods or targeting women of color with information about how to access abortions is part of a plot to curb the progeny of minorities. Like all effective disinformation, her videos are powerful because they are built around grains of truth of a racist history that many would prefer to ignore.

As it stands, Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women and — along with other poor people of color — stand to lose the most from the overturn of Roe v. Wade and the precarious status of abortion access across the country. Whether it is being forced to breed to create a workforce of slave labor, sterilized against their will or restricted from accessing abortion, people of color have long had their reproductive freedom taken away to either implicitly or explicitly serve a white supremacist agenda.

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