Clarence Thomas’s Confusion Concerning Abortion and Eugenics

With its striking discussion of eugenics, Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood has generated a lot of attention and commentary. In Thomas’ words, current abortion law in Indiana

makes it illegal for an abortion provider to perform an abortion in Indiana when the provider knows that the mother is seeking the abortion solely because of the child’s race, sex, diagnosis of Down syndrome, disability, or related characteristics…. Each of the immutable characteristics protected by this law can be known relatively early in a pregnancy, and the law prevents them from becoming the sole criterion for deciding whether the child will live or die. Put differently, this law [i.e., that signed into law by Governor Mike Pence in 2016] and other laws like it promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.

The use of abortion to achieve eugenic goals is not merely hypothetical. The foundations for legalizing abortion in America were laid during the early 20th-century birth-control movement. That movement developed alongside the American eugenics movement. And significantly, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger recognized the eugenic potential of her cause.

There is much to admire in Thomas’ jurisprudence and tenure on the Supreme Court. But this opinion, characterized as it is by sloppy reasoning and misuses of language, is not the man’s best moment. Eugenics is defined as “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population's genetic composition.” As Thomas indicates in the history of eugenics that he weirdly provides in his opinion, eugenics historically describes reproductive controls imposed on other people by paternalistic powers that be. And it is a confusion of context, fatal to Thomas’ argument, to equate or liken eugenics, as historically understood and advocated, to a “mother who is seeking…[an] abortion solely because of the child’s race, sex, diagnosis of Down syndrome, disability, or related characteristics.” For here there is no powerful, paternalistic group advocating that members of certain groups be aborted because of their allegedly inferior or undesirable characteristics, let alone “to improve the population's genetic composition.” In Indiana, as throughout America, there are individual women who get abortions for any number of reasons, but none of these are eugenic.

Certainly it is true, as Thomas observes, that “abortion is an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation,” and that “from the beginning, birth control and abortion were promoted as a means of effectuating eugenics.” Yet noting such truisms does nothing to show that performing an “abortion solely because of the child’s race, sex, diagnosis of Down syndrome, disability, or related characteristics” would be eugenic. Nor is there any reason, in contemporary, equality-crazed America, to believe eugenics is likely to become legal.

Believing that abortion should not become “a tool of modern-day eugenics,” Thomas writes:

[A]bortion in the United States is…marked by a considerable racial disparity. The reported nationwide abortion ratio -- the number of abortions per 1,000 live births -- among black women is nearly 3.5 times the ratio for white women… And there are areas of New York City in which black children are more likely to be aborted than they are to be born alive -- and are up to eight times more likely to be aborted than white children in the same area.

As anybody can see from the data, black women have more abortions because they have higher pregnancy rates, and earlier and more unprotected sex. Moreover, their marriage rates are low, and thus their pregnancies and births are onerous and more frequently occur in poverty. This is a bad situation, terribly difficult for children, but it is not akin to eugenics, for these are self-inflicted wounds.

Of course, there is a lot to criticize in abortion laws and practices in this country, but the subject is already difficult and sensitive enough. In this context, talk about eugenics does nothing but produce unnecessary complications, and stir up people’s blinding passions. The left uses it to cant about “inequality,” on the false assumption that it is the disproportionate poverty among black women that causes them to have so many abortions. The neoconservative right uses it to cant about “racism,” hoping as ever to please the left to which it provides functional opposition, although such submission only makes the left become even more insolent.

Christopher DeGroot is the editor of The Agonist and a columnist at Taki’s Magazine. His Twitter handle is @CEGrotius.

If you experience technical problems, please write to