A Historical View of Eugenics and Its Role in Abortion in Black America

Editor’s Note: Please see Fact #18: Abortion disproportionally targets minority babies.

Reprinted with permission from L.E.A.R.N. Inc.

by Juluette Bartlett Pack

There are many topics I could talk about when the subject of abortion and its harmful effects on women and men and most certainly the deadly effects on the children it victimizes is mentioned. But I am going to share briefly about the historical tragedy of abortion in the African or Black American community. I want to give you a brief overview of the history of abortion and the Black community, and put it in the context of what has happened in America as a whole.

It has been said that a lie can travel 1000 miles before truth can put on boots. In view of that, here is one of those lies. There is a myth that has been circulating that Black women do not kill or abort their children- that if a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock, then most likely she will have the baby, the family will pull together and keep the baby. In the not too distant past this might have been true to a large extent. Although, according to some people, Black women have always to a limited degree, participated in abortion as a means of handling problem pregnancies. However, during the last 20-25 years there has been a definite shift in attitudes about the offering of abortion as an outcome or solution to pregnancy for any reason, whether the woman indicates she desires one or not. Of course this attitude permeates American society throughout–and African Americans follow the trend to the detriment of our relies and this nation.

In an article dated August 12, 1996, in US News and World Report, results about abortion from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s research arm, were reported. According to this report, “Blacks who make up 14% of all childbearing women, have 31% of all abortions and whites, who account for 81% of women of childbearing age, have 61%”. Since Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton over 10 million African American babies have been sacrificed for any reason or no reason in “clinics” offering “safe” and legal abortions. What has caused this shift in attitude? Has this phenomenon happened haphazardly or has there been a conscious effort external and internal to the Black community to effect such a change? I argue that there are historical precedents both external and internal to the Black community that have shaped present day attitudes. The search for an answer leads to the number one abortion provider in America and internationally, Planned Parenthood Federation and its founder, Margaret Sanger.

Abortion as birth control and a solution for an unwanted pregnancy has its genesis in two movements that have been prevalent during much of the 20th century: the birth control and women’s movement (particularly the feminist movement). There can be no doubt that women have had and continue to have legitimate concerns about their sometimes negative status in this country and abroad. But both of these movements must, moreover, be viewed in the historical context of the ideology of eugenics; neo-Malthusianism and socialism which Margaret Sanger promoted. Eugenics is the science that seeks to improve races through the control of hereditary factors–encouraging reproduction from those who are assumed to have the best genes. Neo-Malthusians of the 20th century based their ideas on Robert Malthus’s 19th century view of population growth which was “population will always grow faster than available food supply.” Therefore, a stable population requires that 2 individuals produce no more than 2.1 children: 2 to replace themselves and 0.1 to make up for those people who remain childless. I haven’t figured out you can have a 0.1 child.

Early on the Black birth rate was identified as a problem. In issues of The Birth Control Review, Margaret Sanger’s magazine, dating from the summer of 1932, many of the so called prominent leaders in the Black community contributed articles articulating their views on the solution of the “Negro” problem. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Professor Charles Johnson of Fisk University, Dr. W.G. Alexander, general secretary of the National Medical Association of Negro Physicians, Newell Sims, and others helped “throw light on the need for birth control among the underprivileged Negroes.” Dr. Dubois wrote that large numbers of children were a handicap to those Negroes “who were striving to improve their economic positions,” and that “there was a clash between those for better economic position and those whose religious faith made the limitation of children a sin.” DuBois’s recognition that the church played an important role in the community not only for spiritual guidance but also for community information on various subjects prompted him to say that “the churches are open for the most part to intelligent propaganda of any sort, and the American Birth Control League and other agencies ought to get their speakers before church congregations and their arguments in the Negro newspapers.” His suggestions would be acted upon in 1939 with the formulation of the “Negro Project” developed by Margaret Sanger with help from Clarence Gamble (of Proctor and Gamble) and others.

In the June 1932 magazine issue, Elmer Carter, a magazine editor, wrote an article titled “Eugenics for the Negro” in which he states “that the race problem in America is infinitely aggravated by the presence of too many unhappy born, sub-normals, morons, and imbeciles of both races. Therefore, those fighting for birth control must take eugenics into consideration.” From his statement, it is obvious that the so called Black elite wanted the gene pool of the “unfit” to be eliminated.

As can be seen from above, some influential Black Americans had begun to believe in and spread the doctrine of birth-control as an economic necessity and as a way to improve or cleanse the race by the practice of eugenics. Sanger, at the forefront of this thought, summarized the ideologies by saying “eugenics without birth control seemed a house built upon sands … The eugenists wanted to shift the birth-control emphasis from less children from the poor to more children from the rich. We [birth controllers] went in back of that and sought to stop the multiplication of the unfit.” Thus, she made this a class issue as well as race issue. I would like to think that the early Black leaders who promoted birth control devices were thinking more in terms of contraceptives used for family planning and that they would be appalled to see that today abortion is considered by many as a form of birth control which is different from family planning.

Subsequently, the seeds of the eugenics movement of which abortion is only one way it is manifested, are bearing a bountiful harvest today, For every 3 Black babies born, 2 are aborted. Every month more than 133, 333 babies are aborted, more than 4 1,000 are Black Americans. It is no accident that 78% of abortuaries are located in or near predominately minority neighborhoods.