This week, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York announced that it would remove Margaret Sanger’s name from its Manhattan Health Center. The grounds were Sanger’s eugenic ideas and alliances, which for years have been highlighted by anti-abortion advocates and minimized by her admirers. Under the pressures of the current moment, apparently, that minimization isn’t sustainable anymore.
This is an interesting shift from just a year ago, when Clarence Thomas faced a wave of media scorn when he took note of Sanger’s eugenic sympathies. But Thomas was citing Sanger’s writings to suggest that abortion in America today reflects a kind of structural racism — an inherited tendency, which persists even without racist intent, for pro-abortion policies to reduce minority births more than white births — whereas the removal of Sanger’s name, presumably, was intended to drive home the opposite point: to establish a clear separation between past and present, between racism then and abortion rights today.
But the difficulty is that, according to current thinking on how structural racism lingers and what anti-racism requires, Thomas still seems to have a reasonable case.
That thinking emphasizes, first, the persistent influence of formerly institutionalized racism even in the absence of conscious racists; and second, the importance of assessing every policy based on its effects on racial equality.
“There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy,” wrote best-selling theorist Ibram X. Kendi. “Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity.”
Now apply these frameworks to the history of Planned Parenthood. The organization had eugenic ideas close to its root, and while Sanger herself was pro-contraception rather than pro-abortion, her successors championed both abortion rights and global population control policies that were racist by any reasonable definition.
Then, when abortion was legalized in the United States, with Planned Parenthood’s strong support, its initial effect was a sharp decline in minority births. According to Wellesley economist Phillip Levine, white births dipped only slightly after legalization, while the nonwhite birthrate dropped by 15%. Fifty years later, the abortion rate is five times higher for African Americans than for whites.
So in this story, a worldview with racist antecedents wins a major policy victory that immediately has a disproportionate effect on minority birthrates. And then there is the further twist that over the longer run, Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution probably changed family structure as well, as George Akerlof and (future Fed chair) Janet Yellen argued in a 1996 paper, by creating a wider space for men to expect sex without commitment and to behave irresponsibly toward pregnant women: “By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother,” they wrote, “the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.”
Like the abortion rate itself, this trend — the long rise of fatherlessness — has been steeper in poor and vulnerable communities. So it, too, has helped to sustain racial inequality, by reserving to the whiter upper classes the socioeconomic advantages that two-parent families enjoy. Keep following this logic, and you might conclude that if Planned Parenthood really took anti-racism seriously, it would repent of its support for abortion and devote itself exclusively to helping support African American pregnancies instead.
Are you convinced? I expect not. Maybe you think the decline of the two-parent family is strictly about deindustrialization. Maybe you believe the benefits of abortion access for minority women outweigh whatever power lower birthrates cost the African American community writ large.
Maybe you think the nuclear family was itself a form of white or Western oppression, and any anti-racism that requires its revival isn’t worthy of the name. (This appears to be the position of the official Black Lives Matters organization.) Or maybe you simply think abortion is an absolute human right, which must be defended even if, as policy, it appears to have a disparate racial impact.
Each of these claims could spin out another column in response. For now, I just want the skeptical reader to consider, through the case of Planned Parenthood’s history and abortion’s social consequences, just how complicated the questions opened up by concepts like structural racism and the racism/anti-racism binary can become.
Followed rigorously to their conclusions, they may lead to surprising or inconvenient ideological conclusions, to intersectional dilemmas no doctrine can resolve, or just to a deep uncertainty about the best path to racial redress.
Or they might even lead to a creeping sense that Thomas has a point: that at the very moment that America finally granted African Americans full citizenship, it also embarked on a separate social revolution, whose most ruthless feature — the belief that equality and liberty require removing protections from unborn human life — left a specific stamp on the African American experience, just as the most ruthless features of our history always do.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.