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The Ginsburg Admission

John on July 16, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Justice Ginsburg gave an interview to the New York Times. The Times asked her about Roe v. Wade and here’s what she said:

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.

Roe was handed down in 1973 and there was indeed some “concern” about population growth at that time. In fact, it’s probably more than coincidence that Roe v. Wade was decided the same year that Soylent Green hit movie theaters. Soylent Green presented a dystopian future in which the world was starving, kept alive only by a kind of government produced manna known as soylent green. If nothing else, you may recall the film’s dramatic climax wherein Charlton Heston discovers the disturbing truth the government has so far been able to keep secret, “Soylent Green is people!” It was ecological hysteria but of a very entertaining sort.

The locus of the over-population hysteria was Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb which was published in 1968. Ehrlich was a Stanford biologist who painted a grim picture of our future due to overcrowding not unlike the view presented in the film. Here’s what Time magazine said about Ehrlich in 1971 in an article helpfully titled Population Bomb: Is Man Really Doomed?:

Summing up the sentiments of many population experts, Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich (who has had himself sterilized) concludes that “if we don’t do something dramatic about population and environment, and do it immediately, there is just no hope that civilization will persist.”

Ehrlich’s cause summoned up all the hand-wringing (and publicity) now devoted to global warming. It became a cause célèbre. One of its early adherents was Richard Nixon who wrote in 1969:

One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of the population. Whether man’s response to that challenge will be a cause for pride or for despair in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do today. If we now begin our work in an appropriate manner, and if we continue to devote a considerable amount of attention and energy to this problem, then mankind will be able to surmount this challenge as it has surmounted so many during the long march of civilization.

Nixon did more than offer lip service. The following year he signed a bill which created a kind of Blue Ribbon Panel on over-population known as the Rockefeller Commission because John Rockefeller was its organizer. The Commission published its report including a list of several dozen policy recommendations in 1972. Among the recommendations was the further liberalization of abortion laws and the spread of contraceptives.

The commission also made a recommendation which seems germane to the second half of Ginsburg’s statement. Under the heading “Racial Minorities and the Poor” the commission recommended a series of four steps aimed at reducing “racial polarization.” The ideas boil down to allowing more access to jobs and housing for black and poor Americans with the goal of promoting “a more racially and economically integrated society.”

In isolation, one might agree that these are good goals, but remember this is a document about overpopulation. These recommendations are specifically designed to prevent the coming population bomb. Therefore it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this recommendation was in some sense aimed at preventing those people, i.e. black and poor people, from having too many children.

So when Ginsburg says “particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of” this is the context of the times to which she is referring. Given the explicit racial overtones, it’s certainly inartful of her at best to make a statement like this without clarifying what she means.

I think we can safely assume this is not what Ginsburg meant. It’s more likely that “populations that we don’t want to have to many of” refers to the poor. Put simply, we don’t want more poor people. By itself, this is a statement that is hard to argue with (though one recalls Jesus’ sobering aside that the poor are a fixture not an option). But again, Justice Ginsburg isn’t discussing economics here, she’s discussing abortion. In that context it’s difficult if not impossible to separate even the most generous reading of her comment from its obvious racial implications.

According to the Kaiser family foundation, in 2005 about 35% of all US abortions were performed on black women, though blacks make up only 13% of the population. By contrast, whites (including Hispanics) constitute about 74% of the population and represent about 53% of all abortions. Abortion’s effects have disproportionately and tragically impacted black Americans for more than 30 years, and the numbers don’t show signs of improving.

Perhaps there is some other way to parse her statement. Despite political differences, one does want to be generous to a woman who has served her country in high office for many decades. But it certainly appears that Justice Ginsburg has committed a very serious racial gaffe, one that tends to confirm the worst suspicions of many pro-lifers, i.e. that Roe v. Wade was understood even at the time it was decided as the fulfillment of the eugenics programs initiated earlier in the century by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and her ilk.

To be perfectly clear, Ginsburg was only a law professor at the time. She didn’t reach the Appeals Court until 1980 and it was another 13 years before she reached the Supreme Court under Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, Justice Ginsburg has had opportunities to rule on abortion cases in her years on the bench. She helped strike Nebraska’s law against partial birth abortion (Sternberg v. Carhart) in 2000. And while she has offered some mild criticism of Roe in the past, it was always couched in terms of the decisions impact on a fuller Democratic process among the states. She has never criticized the rulings’ intent or its effects. So it seems fair to conclude, at the very least, that though she was aware of the racial and social impact of Roe, Justice Ginsburg has never felt it was a problem worth speaking about.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while death, war and pestilence are still very much with us, Ehrlich was wrong about the population bomb. The world can indeed support 7 billion people and more. At least it could potentially do so. In this century as in the 20th, most starvation has a proximate political rather than an ecological cause. Though it seems impossible to find any silver lining in a policy that has resulted in more than 40 million abortions, perhaps as a nation we can at least learn something about the unintended consequences of ecological hysteria.

Related: Paul Ehrlich went on to write a book with his wife and another academic named John Holdren. In the book, Ecoscience published in 1977, Ehrlich and Holdren discuss the possibility of sterilizing the masses to prevent the population bomb from killing us by the year 2000:

Adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control. Indeed, this would pose some very difficult political, legal, and social questions, to say nothing of the technical problems. No such sterilant exists today, nor does one appear to be under development. To be acceptable, such a substance would have to meet some rather stiff requirements: it must be uniformly effective, despite widely varying doses received by individuals, and despite varying degrees of fertility and sensitivity among individuals; it must be free of dangerous or unpleasant side effects; and it must have no effect on members of the opposite sex, children, old people, pets, or livestock.

John Holdren, who authored this passage, was recently appointed “Science Czar” by President Obama. Many science bloggers have poo-pooed this as “counterfactual” (it’s not), old news (more like ignored news) stirred up by wingnuts (beside the point/generic fallacy). The argument really comes down to a series of weak excuses:

  • It was only a college textbook.
  • They were only considering the options.
  • It was 30 years ago.
  • Holdren was listed third on the book jacket.
  • He briefly distanced himself from it during his confirmation.
  • Bottom line: He’s one of ours so quit making such a big deal of Holdren’s obvious willingness to ponder forced abortion and mass sterilization!

And of course you just know these same bloggers would be equally “rational” about all this if the nominee had co-written a textbook 30 years ago suggesting abortion be criminalized and abortionists be sent to penitentiaries.

Yeah…sure they would.

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