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Adam Cohen: Clarence Thomas Knows Nothing of My Work

In Tuesday’s ruling on Indiana’s abortion law, Justice Clarence Thomas took the national debate over the right to choose to a dark new place: eugenics. His 20-page concurring opinion included an extensive discussion of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Thomas argued that as the justices consider abortion going forward, they should pay more attention to its potential to become a “tool of eugenic manipulation.”

In making his argument, Thomas cited my book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck repeatedly. (He also cited an article I wrote about Harvard’s ties to eugenics). I don’t want to appear ungrateful: It’s an honor to be relied on by the highest court in the land, and these days, nonfiction authors appreciate just being read at all. But Thomas used the history of eugenics misleadingly, and in ways that could dangerously distort the debate over abortion.

Thomas’s opinion came as an addendum to a decision that sidestepped the most difficult issues raised by the Indiana law. Although the Court upheld Indiana’s requirement that abortion providers bury or cremate fetal remains, it refused to reinstate another part of the law that banned abortions solely because of the sex or disability of the fetus. The New York Times reported that the decision was “an apparent compromise.” It says a lot about where abortion law is today that upholding a law requiring a woman to allow her aborted fetus to be given the funerary rites of a dead child—and possibly to pay a hefty bill for it—now counts as a “compromise.”

Thomas did not object to the Court’s ruling, but he offered up his lengthy treatise on eugenics to help the Court when it considers more laws like Indiana’s in the future. His motivation was apparently to put a new weapon in the arsenal of the anti-abortion movement. If you do not buy the argument that abortion ends a human life, how about the idea that it is an attempt to restrict reproduction in order to “improve” the human race?

Thomas relied on a kind of historical guilt-by-association. “The foundations for legalizing abortion in America were laid during the early 20th century birth-control movement,” he wrote. The birth-control movement, in turn, “developed alongside the American eugenics movement.” Therefore, he suggested, abortion is inseparable from America’s history of eugenics.

In supporting his claim, Thomas cited real history that is not particularly relevant to abortion. It is true, as Thomas said, that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, supported eugenics and that she had some pretty offensive views. (Anyone who doubts that should read what Sanger had to say about “slum mothers” in her book The Pivot of Civilization.) It is also true that Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply diminished immigration of Eastern European Jews and Italians, in part out of a desire to enforce racial “purity.” And Thomas is correct that the Supreme Court played a lamentable role in the eugenics era with its 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell, the subject of my book. The Court upheld a Virginia law that authorized the state to sterilize people it considered unworthy of reproducing, and it allowed the state to sterilize Carrie Buck, the poor young woman at the center of the case.

Read entire article at The Atlantic