The University of Alabama on May 29 announced its plans to return a $26.5 million donation from the largest donor in the university’s history. The announcement came only hours after the donor, Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr., called for students to boycott the university in response to Alabama’s recent ban on abortion.
Culverhouse claims that the university returned his donation because of his statements on abortion. The university disagrees, and insists that its decision was based solely on Culverhouse’s attempts to control the administration.
Culverhouse published an op-ed in the Washington Post on June 7, attributing the university’s decision to his abortion stance. In it, Culverhouse notes that his father was on the board of Planned Parenthood in the 1950s, and would have opposed strongly Alabama’s new law, which prohibits abortions except in cases that endanger the mother’s life.
That Culverhouse boasts about his father’s role on the board of Planned Parenthood in the 1950s suggests that he has no idea about the origins of Planned Parenthood and the activities the group was involved in during its early years. Or he does, and just doesn’t care.
Though the modern iteration of the organization promotes itself as central to women’s “healthcare,” Planned Parenthood was founded with one particular goal in mind: eugenics.
The eugenics movement aims to “improve” the human population by “controlled breeding,” to increase the occurrence of desirable characteristics. The Nazis were fans of eugenics. So, too, was Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.
Sanger started the group in the early 1920s to promote birth control, as the birth control movement was developing alongside the eugenics movement. By the 1920s, support from academics and intellectual elites had brought eugenics to the forefront of the public mind.
For these elites, eugenics was a tool to promote the reproduction of those considered mentally, physically, and racially “superior,” and to prevent the reproduction of the “inferior.” Birth control and abortion—excellent tools for genetic manipulation—were intimately tied to the eugenics movement from the beginning. In fact, Sanger, advocated for contraception and sterilization as eugenic tools. In a 1950 letter to Mrs. Stanley McCormick, Sanger wrote:
I consider that the world and almost our civilization for the next twenty-five years, is going to depend on a simple, cheap, safe contraceptive to be used in poverty-stricken slums, jungles, and among the most ignorant people. Even this will not be sufficient, because I believe that now, immediately, there should be national sterilization for certain dysgenic types of our population who are being encouraged to breed and would die out were the government not feeding them.
The “dysgenic types” or undesirable people to whom Sanger refers included especially African Americans—a group Sanger called “the great problem of the South,” and “the group with ‘the greatest economic, health and social problems.’” In 1939, Sanger launched the Negro Project to disseminate birth control throughout Southern black communities. She wanted black ministers involved, noting, “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”
It is not without a degree of sordid irony to point out that even today, African American women obtain almost half of the abortions in the United States, despite making up only around 13 percent of the population. The nationwide abortion ratio among black women is nearly 3.5 times the ratio it is for white women.
Even beyond Sanger’s leadership of Planned Parenthood, the focus on eugenics persisted. In 1959, Alan Guttmacher, a president of Planned Parenthood and vice president of the American Eugenic Society, urged “the quality of the parents” to be taken into account when considering a pregnancy. The question of whether to allow abortion, he said, must be “separated from the emotional, moral and religious concepts” and “must have as its focus normal, healthy infants born into homes peopled with parents who have healthy bodies and minds.” Notably, Guttmacher believed that “it should be permissible to abort any pregnancy . . . in which there is a strong probability of an abnormal or malformed infant.”
Lest one consider these questions dated relics of another time, the eugenic potential of abortion is even greater in 2019 than it was in the 1930s and 1940s.
For proof of this, look no further than Iceland, where doctors boast that they have “basically eradicated” Down syndrome. They have done so, of course, by aborting babies who screen positively for the condition in utero. “We don’t look at abortion as murder,” said one hospital counselor. “We look at it as a thing we have ended.”
Iceland isn’t alone. In Denmark, 98 percent of pregnancies with a Down syndrome diagnosis are terminated. In France, it’s 77 percent. In the United States, 67 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted.
A Nation Divided
All of this, of course, plays out against the backdrop of a country that remains tremendously divided over abortion. And though pro-abortion activists treat the question as settled law post Roe v. Wade, it is becoming increasingly clear that the public is not satisfied with the Supreme Court allowing one abortion law to govern all states.
This year, and especially in the past few months, states have become increasingly willing to test the courts by passing new abortion laws. Arkansas on March 15 banned abortion after 18 weeks. The same month, Utah, too, banned abortion after 18 weeks, and Mississippi banned abortion after it is possible to detect a fetal heartbeat (generally around six weeks of pregnancy). Ohio passed a similar “fetal heartbeat bill” in April. On May 7, Georgia, did too. Eight days later, Alabama passed a near-total ban on abortions, the most restrictive law since Roe v. Wade. On May 24, Missouri banned abortion after eight weeks; six days later, Louisiana signed its own heartbeat bill into law.
Unless Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will remain legal, though it may be subject to some restrictions. The states recognize this reality, and many supporters of state abortion bans see their ultimate purpose not as banning abortion directly, but rather as pushing the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey expressed this sentiment in a statement of support for Alabama’s abortion ban. “At least for the short term,” Ivey acknowledges, “this bill may . . . be unenforceable.” However, she writes, “The sponsors of the bill believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.”
At least one justice on the court seems prepared for this eventuality. In a stirring concurrence in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Justice Clarence Thomas urged the court to consider the history of abortion as a means of achieving eugenic goals. In heavily cited and matter-of-fact prose, Thomas, only the second African American Supreme Court Justice in history, outlined how Margaret Sanger aimed to suppress the procreation of the black community, and otherwise eliminate the “unfit.”
“This case highlights the fact that abortion is an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation,” he wrote. Regarding Indiana’s ban on selective abortion, Thomas went on, “This law and other laws like it promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.”
Abortion supporters like Hugh Culverhouse have long ignored the eugenic potential of abortion, just as they have ignored the sordid history of Planned Parenthood. Far from the champion of the underprivileged that it is touted to be, Planned Parenthood supports policies that would promote their diminution or elimination.
Now, as states saddle the Supreme Court with increasingly strict abortion restrictions, the court will be forced to contend not only with public opinion, but also with history. As Thomas writes in his concurrence, “Given the potential for abortion to become a tool of eugenic manipulation, the Court will soon need to confront the constitutionality of laws like Indiana’s.”
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