William & Mary Law Review


Melissa Murray


In recent years, a new narrative associating reproductive rights with the eugenics movement of the 1920s has taken root. As this narrative maintains, in the 1920s, Margaret Sanger, a pioneer of the modern birth control movement, joined forces with the eugenics movement to market family planning measures to marginalized minority communities.

Although the history undergirding this narrative is incomplete and misleading, the narrative itself has flourished as the debate over the continued vitality of reproductive rights has unfolded in the United States. Indeed, in just the last three years, a member of the United States Supreme Court and a number of lower federal court judges have referenced the alleged links between abortion, contraception, and eugenics in their defense of abortion restrictions.

The effort to link abortion and contraception to the racialized logic of the eugenics movement is interesting on a number of fronts. As I have written elsewhere, this narrative is at once a potent defense of abortion restrictions and a more calculated effort to recast the social meaning of reproductive rights from a question of gender equality to one of racial inequality. But equally noteworthy is the narrative’s utter neglect of the eugenics movement’s investment in coercive sterilization—not abortion or contraception—as its preferred vehicle of reproductive control and social engineering.

With all of this in mind, this Article seeks to reframe the interest in reproductive rights, racism, and eugenics to include a more robust discussion of sterilization practices. To do so, the Article supplements the historical narrative to clarify that the eugenics movement’s interest in racial betterment was primarily directed at improving and purifying the white race. To the extent the eugenics movement focused on abortion and contraception, it was in limiting middle- and upper-class white women’s access to these vehicles of reproductive freedom on the ground that the reproduction of these constituencies was vital to the future of the white race. Insofar as eugenicists were interested in limiting reproduction, their interest was directed toward those individuals who possessed traits deemed unsuitable for the propagation of the white race—and meaningfully, their preferred vehicle for limiting reproduction among the “unfit” was not contraception or abortion, but rather, sterilization.

And even as popular interest in eugenics waned in the 1940s, the state’s interest in sterilization as a means of reproductive control did not abate. Indeed, as the Civil Rights Movement and the welfare rights movement dawned, many states repurposed sterilization to limit the reproductive capacities of those deemed sexually immoral or unduly dependent on the public fisc, usually poor women of color.

To underscore the relationship between race, class, dependence, and state-endorsed sterilization, the Article highlights Cox v. Stanton, a challenge to North Carolina’s sterilization program litigated by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Brenda Feigen Fasteau, and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in the 1970s. Although Cox did not result in the invalidation of state sterilization programs, it—and other contemporary challenges to sterilization abuse—made clear the centrality of sterilization as a technology of reproductive control, as well as sterilization abuse’s racialized impact. In this regard, the nascent effort to associate abortion and contraception with eugenic racism not only equates state-sponsored reproductive abuses with an individual’s decision to terminate or avoid pregnancy, but also overlooks—and indeed, further obscures—the significant history of racialized sterilization abuse in the United States.


Presented as the 2021 George Wythe Lecture, "Race-ing Roe: Reproductive Justice, Racial Justice, and the Battle for Roe v. Wade," delivered at William & Mary Law School on April 12, 2021.