REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS, RACE & BIRTH CONTROL IN AMERICA
By Dr. Shantella Sherman
On May 28, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky reconstituted the relationship between abortion, eugenics, and Planned Parenthood. Noting that the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger, championed the need for birth control and abortion as a means of saving married white women from early death resulting from excessive numbers of unwanted pregnancies. She also supported both as tools for decreasing Black and immigrant populations in the nation.
Clarence Thomas wrote in the Court’s final analysis: “From the beginning, birth control and abortion were promoted as means of effectuating eugenics. Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger, was particularly open about the fact that birth control could be used for eugenic purposes. These arguments about the eugenic potential for birth control apply with even greater force to abortion, which can be used to target specific children with unwanted characteristics.”
Thomas went on to chart the sentiments of a former Planned Parenthood President Alan Guttmacher into the debate saying gynecologist who also served as president of the American Eugenics Society endorsed abortion for eugenic reasons and “promoted it as a means of controlling the population and improving its quality.”
However, long before Thomas’ decision notes, America willfully and cheerfully worked to breed for quality rather than quantity using extralegal methods including segregation, miscegenation laws, and mate selection. At the same time, between 1840 and 1890, most states banned contraception and with the 1873 Comstock Act, outlawed the distribution of all “obscene materials,” including pornography and contraception.
Eugenicists believed that the weak within a nation (defined as impoverished, criminal, immoral, intellectually-stunted, and socially inept individuals) would eventually outnumber the fit and cause the degeneration of America. Such theories introduced terms like race suicide, race hygiene, better breeding, and defectives, into explosive national debates. It also gave license to everyday Americans to assess who should and should not be allowed to have children, and forced contraception and abortions “underground.”
Condoms became available in drug stores for men, but women had nothing comparable that was legal. Sanger introduced the diaphragm and other safe measures to women that would keep them from toxic and homemade potions, including douches with Lysol.
Sexual habits increasingly came under public scrutiny and the government forged legislation to more succinctly define the legality of birth control, sexualized amusements (films, books, and live performances), and public enticements (clothing, music, and hairstyles). At the core of legal decisions was eugenic logic concerning the social and moral decline of the nation.
One such decision the theory of quality over quantity informed was the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision to uphold a Virginia law that allowed the forced sterilization of any person deemed socially or mentally unfit. The goal was to keep the weak from becoming financial or social burdens on the state. White women were central to laws governing mate selection, while Black sexuality framed laws restricting reproduction.
EXTINCTION DID NOT COME
The first forty years following Emancipation saw a surge of social and political studies attempting to chart the progress, decline, or extinction of Black people.
Economist George M. Weston predicted in his 1857 The Progress of Slavery in the United States that the Black would follow the laws of nature as described by Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest, and simply disappear by the turn of the century.
“The disappearance of inferior races in the presence of more vigorous stocks was a catastrophe it was a benefit result of laws which nature manifests throughout not only the animal but the vegetable world. The only thing that now prevented negro extinction was the artificial protection provided by the institution of slavery, which was no scheme of nature but a violation of all moral and natural laws.”
Most labeled their inquiries as The Negro Problem, or The Negro Question, as was the article by N. S. Shaler in a November 1884 edition of The Atlantic. Demographers noted the increase in Black Americans from a little more than one million in 1800 to nearly 9 million in 1900 but also asserted the inability of Black people to care for themselves outside of the altruism and benevolence of white enslavers. It was believed that the extinction of the race was inevitable, then, through a genetic predisposition to immorality and savagery that had been violently suppressed under enslavement.
“The most immediate result of the struggles which this race is now undergoing is the preservation of those households where there is an element of better blood or breeding, which secures the family from the diseases incident to thriftless and vicious lives,“ Shaler wrote.
When extinction did not come, eugenic theorists like Madison Grant posited in texts including, The Passing of the Great Race (1922) that under enslavement white men were able to retain their “vigor” (or the ability to produce superior stock) because they did not have to toil or be exposed to unfavorable conditions.
“When slavery was abolished and the white man had to plough his own fields or work in the factory, deterioration began,” Grant writes.
Similarly, Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (1920) takes aim at the loss of superior Americans through reckless sexual behavior between and within races. “Unless man erects and maintains artificial barriers, the various races will increasingly mingle, and the inevitable result will be the supplanting or absorption of the higher by the lower types.”
Scientist Leonard Darwin, wrote in The Eugenics Review in 1904:
“Men of exceptional strength and ability are constantly being selected out of the poorer ranks and transferred to the richer strata of society, whilst wastrels and other failures amongst the rich keep falling down into the lower economic ranks; and as all our qualities, mental and physical, are the result of our environments acting on our inborn natures, it follows that inborn qualities must count for something' in this sifting process, and that the richer ranks on this account contain a higher proportion of persons of inherently superior types than do the poorest strata.
DOLLARS AND CENTS
States like Iowa and Kansas incorporated better breeding instruction through exhibitions, baby contests (Better Babies), and family heritage competitions (Fitter Families contests) into amusements like the annual state fair. They also encouraged young men and women to refrain from sex, abstain from excessive drinking, drug use, and riotous living, and to maintain a posture of decency in public.
“There was a certain fear, particularly among teenagers, that their desire to skirt their parents’ authority, or engage in typical teen behaviors would land them in a home, reformatory, or asylum where they would be sterilized,” historian Mel Azure said. “The result was a period between 1920 and 1960 when young people understood that local and federal authorities exerted power over their individual reproductive rights.”
For instance, U.S. Senator Herman Talmage petitioned to have a sterilization act in Georgia for “the purpose of controlling illegitimate babies to irresponsible mothers.” By 1959, the Georgia legislation established to eugenically cut off the reproduction of poor stock now expressly targeted impoverished citizens for economic reasons.
“When you factor race pride and economics into a discussion of eugenics, invariably you get Black scholars like Kelly Miller who wrote about the eugenics of the Negro aligned with legislators like Talmage who link poverty — a transmittable trait — with reproduction,” Azure said.
He goes on to note that overlap of issues results in breaches of human rights, constitutional laws, and common decency.
“It’s the reason even today that people are not up in arms when it is suggested that women on welfare should not be allowed to continue to have children. The kids are considered a monetary burden on the nation and that nullifies the objection to sterilizing these women or placing them on long-term birth control methods against their wills,” Azure said.
Miller, a Howard University professor wrote The Eugenics of the Negro in 1917 for The Scientific Monthly, as a study he’d conducted of birth rates among the university’s faculty compared to those of the faculty’s parents. His comparative data found that intellectually driven members of the race tended to delay marriage and parenting for economic reasons or out of fear of racial hostilities toward their offspring.
“The birth rate of the mass of the race is not affected by like considerations. They feel little or nothing of the stress and strain of the upper class, and multiply and make merry, in blissful oblivion of these things. The rate of increase of the upper class is scarcely a third of that of the bulk of the race, as is clearly indicated by the relative prolificness of the Howard University faculty as compared to that of their parents,” Miller wrote.
THE NEGRO NUMBER—BIRTH CONTROL REVIEW
Miller was not alone. By 1932, so terse was the debate over national and racial fitness that an entire edition (June) of The Birth Control Review was deemed “The Negro Number.” It included voices from the Black intelligentsia, the Niggerati, and a growing academician class on quality versus quantity, birth control and laboring Black bodies. George S. Schuyler, Charles S. Johnson, M.O. Bousfield, Walter Terpenning, W.G. Alexander, and Hannah M. Stone, among the contributors, the edition offers amazing insight into class divisions and markers of racial uplift.
The edition opens with commentary that places African Americans' social conditions—largely that of low economic status—at the feet of increased and reckless reproduction.
“The present submerged condition of the Negro is due in large part to the high fertility of the race under disastrously adverse circumstances The result has been a hopeless condition of poverty and degradation in perhaps far greater measure than in the case of the lower strata whites But it is interesting to observe that the upper strata of Negroes, like that of the whites, practice birth control.”
It goes on to quote Henry Fairchild Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, lamentation on the immediate need for "birth selection" as a solution to the problems of overpopulation, unemployment, and poverty.
In this way, even race leaders attempted to exert reproductive standards over Black bodies by affixing their stance as Economic Freedom + Social Mobility + Racial Uplift = American Dream - (Minus) Too Many or Ill-Spaced Children.
“You see in this edition of the Birth Control Review a loss of humanity when dealing with Black bodies because very real and traumatic environments inform birth rates like the astronomical number of Black (and other disenfranchised) women routinely raped and sexually violated as an extension of white power and terrorism,” Acumen editor Sophia Sparks notes. “Those rapes resulted in children. That poverty brought on by having too many children was written about as though the women simply had no control over their sexual appetites or impulses. That is like violating those women again and again.”
Sparks said the language was used in the edition mimicked that used by eugenicists among Ellis Island authorities who saw the influx of immigrant populations with large families — Jews and Italians especially — as a social threat to native-White birth rates.
A few instances of the heavy-handedness of the writings, included Terpenning agreeing that for some Blacks “propagation will be checked only by sterilization or institutionalization. George Schuyler wrote: “A woman is biologically a child factory, as a cow is a milk factory and a hen an egg factory. Certain ingredients of a certain quality are necessary to produce a healthy child under proper conditions of rest and security. If these are absent, the child will usually be an inferior product. Unfortunately, the offspring of the lower economic classes fill the morgues, jails, and hospitals largely for this very reason.”
Schuyler positions Black women’s laboring in biological terms and the trajectory of her offspring a condition of them being “born well” — returning the scope to genetics.
Elmer Carter wrote that as able-bodied professional Blacks shrink from the responsibilities of parenthood and those least capable have too many “...the probabilities are that the race problem in America is infinitely aggravated by the presence of too many unhappily born, sub-normals, morons, and imbeciles of both races.”
Social worker Constance Fisher wrote in the edition that the overall health of poor Black families benefited from family planning clinics.
“There are increasing numbers who seek birth control information because they feel that if they go on resenting themselves and their mates for physical, economic, and emotional reasons, greater problems are certain to arise, and the existing tensions In their family life are bound to be stretched to their logical ends -the breaking point.”
Nearly ninety years later when the “Negro Number” of The Birth Control Review is assessed alongside the pushback against Roe v. Wade, the continued pressure to have welfare recipients limit their offspring, and the continued delay of childbearing among middle-class African Americans, it is clear how little has changed.
“It is the dehumanization of the people being forced onto birth control or being sterilized that stings. It promotes the lie that wealth and education makes a good person,” Sparks said.