The Guide to Creating a “Perfect” Society: How Relinquishing Reproductive Freedoms Will Create the “Elite” Race
It is imperative that American society recognize how eugenics, racism, sexism, and ableism impact access to reproductive health care.
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A woman is in the midst of having a C-section. Her body aches, her mind is slightly delirious, and she is anxious about motherhood. All she can focus on is imagining her child during their first moments of life. The doctor cuts the umbilical cord and delivers the placenta. Despite her flustered state, she is asked a question that will have irrevocable consequences on her future: if she wants her tubes tied. In the rush of the moment, she says yes, barely understanding what the doctor said. In this pivotal moment of her life, she has been given a nonconsensual sterilization.
Throughout the last century, over 60,000 individuals have been similarly coerced into surrendering their reproductive freedoms. Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, poor whites, and the disabled have especially suffered from this exploitation. Why? Because each of these demographics was deemed “imperfect” and a stain on society by the eugenics movement.
History of Eugenics?
Since its inception in the late nineteenth century, eugenics has been intertwined with reproductive health. Based on heredity and selective breeding, Francis Galton, notable British polymath, created eugenics—the purposeful breeding of humans—to create the “superior human race.” Galton believed that the path to ideal human evolution was to solely permit the socially renowned and wealthy—the healthy, white, elite population—to reproduce. Many scientists unsuccessfully attempted to prove the “superiority” of whites. Consequently, Galton’s idea was largely ignored until the early twentieth century when eugenics infiltrated American culture and legislation. As the movement gained traction, the number of victims of involuntary sterilizations in the United States grew as well.
The eugenics movement underwent several stages. Sonia Suter JD/MS, professor of law and medicine at George Washington University, distinguishes the first stage of the eugenics movement—from the early 1900s to the 1940s—as “targeting lower-income people, people who were disadvantaged…actually more poor white women.” Groups, such as the American Breeder’s Association, the Race Betterment Foundation, and the Eugenics Record Office, were established to study eugenics and track genetic traits. At this point, 30 states had legislation that allowed for involuntary sterilizations at prisons and mental institutions. Many times these individuals were coerced into receiving sterilizations for manufactured reasons; eugenicists argued that these individuals were incapable of becoming good parents. Society’s belief that the mentally ill were defective only substantiated this claim. In reality, eugenicists aimed to prevent the survival of genetics from the mentally ill, as they believed all hereditary diseases and illnesses were a stain on humanity.
In its second stage, the eugenics movement targeted a new group. Following World War II, the eugenics movement declined as its practices were associated with those of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Until the 1970s, the United States forcibly sterilized many individuals, primarily women, who were disabled, members of minority groups, or poor. Many states no longer permitted the sterilization of incarcerated or institutionalized persons. Sterilizations motivated by eugenics happened discreetly and transitioned from concentrating on the disabled population to impoverished, minority communities.
Cons of Eugenics
Today, forced sterilization is still permitted in 31 states in the United States, including New York, California, and Florida. These forced sterilizations are supposedly only permitted under special circumstances, coincidentally, on the disabled and ICE detainees. Marginalized communities are most at risk of having their reproductive abilities stripped from them; eugenics is not a danger of the past as the abuse it inflicts on people is ongoing. Forced sterilizations are not the only medium in which eugenics remains; eugenics has infiltrated other facets of reproductive health, such as abortion.
Just last year, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the case Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization. What was the justification for overturning the right to abortion? Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas claimed that this decision was made to combat eugenics within the pro-choice movement, arguing that abortions contributed to discrimination against disabled persons. In reality, the needs of those receiving abortions and those affected by eugenics have been greatly misconstrued.
Where Are We Now?
Anti-choice proponents have created the narrative that individuals who receive abortions do so to terminate embryos and fetuses with prospective intellectual disabilities or hereditary diseases. In other words, they argue that people who receive abortions support eugenics. This is a widely far-fetched claim as most women are motivated to have an abortion by their desire to establish a career, prioritize the children they already have, or acquire the necessary child-care resources that are not accessible in poverty. The majority of women are not receiving abortions to prevent the possibility of having a disabled child; they are getting abortions because they are not at a point in their lives where they are readily available to nurture a new life. The Abortion Patient Survey by The Guttmacher Institute found that ⅗ of survey respondents were in their twenties, ⅓ were Black, ¼ were Latino, and ¾ were below the federal poverty line. It is the young, impoverished, and minority communities that are most affected by the revocation of abortion rights. This is not an effort to dismantle eugenics, it is a movement to control the reproductive abilities of minority communities. Suter emphasizes that “there’s a huge irony in that the Dobbs decision makes the eugenics of the late 1800s and early 1900s much more likely today than it was in the past.”
As a society, we must be aware of how the biases and motivations of those in power can influence how information is presented. By contorting abortions with eugenics, proponents of anti-choice legislation intimidate American society into believing that restricting reproductive freedoms is a step toward preventing racism and ableism. As eugenicists and anti-choice proponents have blurred reproductive justice with eugenics, Suter provides a valuable distinction: “Eugenics is when the state is limiting your ability to reproduce, whereas reproductive justice is maximizing people’s ability to make decisions about reproduction, whether to have children or not have children.” It is imperative that American society recognize how eugenics, racism, sexism, and ableism impact access to reproductive health care. If neglected, what future are we creating for tomorrow’s children?
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MelAny Mendoza (She/Her)
Melany Mendoza is a Senior at Baldwin Senior High School and a General Intern for the promising TurnUp App, which is dedicated to youth involvement in activism. With great fascination in the areas of mathematics and medicine, she aspires to pursue a STEM-related career. She finds great interest in researching immigration reform, colorism, reproductive rights, and Latin American affairs.