Clarence Thomas' Linking Abortion to Eugenics Is as Inaccurate as It Is Dangerous | Opinion

This week, Justice Clarence Thomas issued an alarming and incoherent 20-page opinion in conjunction with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Indiana's recent abortion law.

The court upheld the requirements that abortion providers bury or cremate fetal remains, but it declined to take up the portion of Indiana's law that prohibits abortion based on the sex, race, national origin or disability status of the fetus. Yet the Supreme Court's hands-off approach to that portion of the law did not deter Thomas from using it as a springboard to author a treatise replete with false equivalences and historical distortions related to eugenics.

In his opinion, the justice invokes the term eugenics over 100 times, using it as a smear tactic to associate abortion with the most heinous abuses of the 20th century. These histrionics are not new: Thomas is recycling long-standing talking points of anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue that conflated abortion with the "Nazi slaughter of the Jews." In these distorted renditions, abortion is a juggernaut hell-bent on destroying society's most vulnerable. According to Thomas, technological advances connected to genetic testing are promoting discriminatory abortion practices that target legions of unborn victims, above all African Americans and people with disabilities.

Thomas' opinion is as inaccurate as it is dangerous.

Thomas fails to acknowledge that the most egregious dimension of the American eugenics movement—involuntary sterilization—which befell more than 60,000 American women and men, most of whom had been committed to institutions, was a form of state coercion. From 1907 to 1937, 32 U.S. states, as well as Puerto Rico, passed laws mandating the surgical sterilization of individuals deemed defective, unfit, deviant and, in the parlance of the times, "feebleminded." The state wielded the surgical knife in the name of protecting public health and improving the gene pool, and individual autonomy was squashed in the process.

Thomas notes that none other than the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, but he chooses not to see the bright through line of state-mandated reproductive control that runs directly from the sterilization laws of the past to the stringent abortion laws of today. Both strike at the heart of women's reproductive liberty.

It is nonsensical to equate state-mandated programs aimed at controlling the reproduction of certain populations with individual reproductive decisions around birth control and abortion, although Thomas does precisely this, in a manner that blames women. He writes, "The individualized nature of abortion gives it even more eugenic potential than birth control." In his contorted narrative, pieced together with a curious smattering of primary and secondary sources, Thomas proposes a syllogism in which abortion equals birth control, which equals eugenics, implying that anything other than uninhibited natural birth is morally suspect and potentially legally actionable.

Yet there is no evidence that any prominent eugenicists actively supported abortion, and many were wary of birth control because they worried it would impede breeding among white middle-class women.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas poses for the official group photo at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on November 30, 2018. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Image

Thomas turns women exercising basic reproductive rights, as guaranteed by Roe v. Wade and other legislation, into villains whose actions are tantamount to genocide. From his perspective, women are not human beings capable of reproductive decision-making in consultation with health professionals but mere vessels for the enactment of technological evil. As he writes, "Technological advances have only heightened the eugenic potential for abortion, as abortion can now be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics, such as a particular sex or disability." This interpretation smacks of technological determinism at its most patriarchal and sexist.

Just as troubling is Thomas' disingenuous support for disability rights. He elevates the hypothetical life of a fetus or a potential fetus as sacrosanct, while dismissing the actual lives of people with disabilities and their families. Expounding with platitudes about the horrors of eugenics and the paternalistic need to protect the innocents ignores the complex dynamics around prenatal testing that do raise important ethical questions about society's stigmatization of disability. But hastily condemning prenatal testing as the medical fulcrum for abortion ignores the critical information such tests can deliver to prospective parents, who might choose to terminate a pregnancy for medical reasons or be able to better prepare for the birth of a child with special needs.

Using eugenics as a rhetorical sledgehammer is a tried-and-true strategy of anti-abortion activists. It now has the imprimatur of the highest court in the land. As draconian abortion bills continue to be passed in state after state, including "fetal heartbeat" laws and near-absolute bans, even in cases of rape and incest, Thomas has thrown down the guilt-by-association gauntlet and cleaved open new space in the language and culture wars of reproductive rights.

It is imperative to resist his interpretation. It is historically inaccurate, undermines reproductive autonomy and effectively turns every woman making decisions about her reproductive future into a 21st-century Mengele.

Alexandra Minna Stern is a professor American culture, history, women's studies, and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan. Stern is author of the prize-winning book Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. Her forthcoming book is Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right Is Warping the American Imagination.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​