The Road to Abortion (II): How Government Got Hooked

By Meehan, Mary | The Human Life Review, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Road to Abortion (II): How Government Got Hooked


Meehan, Mary, The Human Life Review


The first part of this series traced close links between eugenics (the effort to breed a "better" human race) and population control throughout the greater part of this century up to the 1960s. It stressed the population work of early eugenicists and eugenics sympathizers such as Frederick Osborn, Margaret Sanger, Gunnar Myrdal, Alan Guttmacher, Garrett Hardin and John D. Rockefeller 3rd.

This second and concluding part will show how population controllers, from the 60s onward increasingly added economic and foreign-policy concerns to their original "eugenics" motive of improving human genetic stock. Working in both Democratic and Republican administrations, they gained major government backing for their programs and also played a key role in the legalization of abortion. I will use President Richard Nixon's administration as an example of heavy government involvement.

While eugenicists encouraged research on abortifacient drugs and devices, they also turned their attention to surgical abortion as a tool that could be combined with prenatal testing to eliminate the handicapped unborn.

The Nazi era had given compulsory sterilization a bad name, but eugenicists never lost their interest in preventing births of the handicapped. Frederick Osborn and others in the American Eugenics Society had long promoted "hereditary counseling," which they once described as "the opening wedge in the public acceptance of eugenic principles." Scientists were developing prenatal testing for fetal handicaps in the 1950s,l but that would not have meant much had abortion continued to be illegal. A Rockefeller-funded project came to the rescue. The foundation was supporting the American Law Institute's production of a "model penal code," which states could use as a guide when amending their criminal laws.

Dr. Alan Guttmacher's twin brother Manfred, a psychiatrist, was a special consultant to the model code project, and Alan himself took part in one or two meetings about it when he was vice president of the American Eugenics Society. (Later he would lead the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.) Another special consultant was a British legal scholar and eugenicist, Glanville Williams. The model code, as adopted by the Institute in 1962, allowed abortions for "substantial risk" of serious handicap in the unborn child, as well as in other hard cases. In the final debate, attorney Eugene Quay declared, to no avail, that "the state cannot give the authority to perform an abortion because it does not have the authority itself. Those lives are human lives, and are not the property of the state."2

A number of states changed their abortion laws along the lines suggested in the model penal code. The new laws did not make as much difference as their supporters had hoped-and their opponents had feared-probably because many "respectable" doctors were already doing abortions for hard cases. While abortion supporters were disappointed and soon pressed for abortion-- on-demand, the exceptions approach actually had helped their cause in several ways. It had prompted public debate on a "taboo" subject, had softened up the public to the idea of abortion as a "humanitarian" action, and probably had led many of the public to believe that the debate was about hard cases only.

Meanwhile, population experts were increasingly viewing abortion as another tool to control population numbers. They knew that legalized abortion had sharply reduced population growth in Japan after the Second World War. They were particularly interested in suction machines used for abortion in China, and they worked to spread knowledge of this method. C. Lalor Burdick, a foundation executive and eugenicist, pressed the suction-machine approach with great energy because it could be done on an outpatient basis and was cheaper than other methods. His Lalor Foundation helped finance a training film on suction abortion that was produced by British doctor Dorothea Kerslake and shown widely to doctors in the U. …

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