WHAT DO Richard Nixon and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have in common?
Not much ever linked the former president, who died in 1994, and the associate justice now in her 17th year on the Supreme Court. But each was in the news recently with a cringe-inducing comment about abortion. Those comments -- one spoken privately long ago, one uttered publicly this month -- are a reminder of the ease with which educated elites can decide that some people's lives have no value.
'Populations that we don't want to have too many of': Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ginsburg's words were even creepier.
"Reproductive choice has to be straightened out," she said in a recent New York Times interview, because "we have a policy that affects only poor women." The justice was referring to the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of Medicaid funds for abortions -- a law the Supreme Court upheld in Harris v. McRae in 1980. "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. . . . But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way."
Populations that we don't want to have too many of -- who would those be, exactly? Minorities? The poor? The handicapped? Ginsburg didn't elaborate and the Times, unaccountably, didn't ask. Perhaps she was describing the opinion of others -- but then why speak in the first person plural ("we")? Or maybe she was referring to the views of those who welcomed Roe 36 years ago -- but then why speak in the present tense ("don't want")?
Whatever Ginsburg's view might be, her words recall the now-rarely-mentioned obsession with eugenics and the elimination of "undesirables" that animated so many supporters of legal abortion and the birth-control movement. Here, for instance, is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority in the 1927 Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, which upheld the right of state governments to forcibly sterilize "feebleminded" citizens:
"It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Holmes considered such brutal thinking progressive and enlightened. It "gave me pleasure," he told one friend, to pen a decision upholding compulsory sterilization.
'Dead weight of human waste': Margaret Sanger was a tireless campaigner for eugenics
Decades later, the eugenicist mindset lives on. Ron Weddington, co-counsel for the appellants in Roe, wrote an impassioned letter to President-elect Bill Clinton in January 1993, challenging him to "start immediately to eliminate the barely educated, unhealthy and poor segment of our country" -- not through "some sort of mass extinction," but with massive birth control and abortion. "Condoms alone won't do it. . . . Government is also going to have to provide vasectomies, tubal ligations, and abortion. . . . We don't need more poor babies."
Which poor babies? Weddington wasn't specific. But as Jonah Goldberg points out in his 2008 bestseller, Liberal Fascism, abortion today "ends more black lives than heart disease, cancer, accidents, AIDS, and violent crime combined." More than half of all black pregnancies in America end in abortion. Surely that wasn't what Justice Ginsburg meant by "populations that we don't want to have too many of." Or was it?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. To follow him on Twitter, click here.)