June 7, 2019

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Pro-life efforts stand in contrast to state’s previous support of eugenics

Sean GallagherThe state legislature in Illinois recently passed a bill that removes virtually all restrictions on abortion in that state. The bill, which describes abortion as a “fundamental right,” also explicitly states that “a fertilized egg, embryo or fetus does not have independent rights.”

In contrast, Indiana, Illinois’ neighbor to the east, has enacted a series of laws over the past several years which seek to protect the dignity of unborn children.

They include laws that require mothers seeking an abortion to be informed about other options for them that would protect the lives of their unborn children. And just this year, the legislature passed a bill that bans dismemberment abortion.

But Indiana has not always had such a life-affirming reputation. In 1907, it became the first state in the nation to pass a eugenics law that allowed for the forcible sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.”

The law came about through the growing popularity at the time of the eugenics movement, which emerged in Great Britain in the 19th century. Promoters of the movement sought to improve humanity through, among other means, restricting the ability of those they saw as a drag on society to conceive and give birth to children.

Slightly amended in the 1920s, the Indiana law remained on the books until it was repealed in 1974. More than 2,300 Hoosiers were sterilized against their will over the time that the law was enforced.

In 2007, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that expressed regret for this dark cloud in Indiana’s history and encouraged Hoosiers to learn about it.

I’m 48, and I can say that I was taught nothing about this part of Indiana history in school and have only come to learn about it as I’ve become involved in the pro-life movement as an adult.

Nine years later, the Indiana legislature passed a law that can be seen as an effort to correct the tragic errors of the past. The 2016 law banned abortion because of the race or sex of the unborn child, or if he or she had been diagnosed with Down syndrome or other disabilities, a practice which has become known as “discriminatory abortion.”

On May 28, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order regarding two aspects of the 2016 law. In one, it upheld the part of the law that requires abortion providers to either cremate or bury the remains of aborted children instead of the previous practice of incinerating them like the practice for treating “surgical byproducts.”

The court unfortunately also let stand a lower court’s overturning of the ban on discriminatory abortion. It said, though, that it may examine the issue if similar laws in other states are challenged in court.

In a 20-page opinion on the order, Justice Clarence Thomas noted a connection between the eugenics movement and the 2016 law. He wrote that early promoters of abortion affirmed a tie between abortion and eugenics. Because “technological advances have only heightened the eugenic potential for abortion,” Thomas wrote, “ … the Court will soon need to confront the constitutionality of laws like Indiana’s.”

Eugenics as a movement that led to forced sterilization laws lost popularity following the atrocities it inspired in Nazi Germany.

But the principles of eugenics still hold sway in much of society today.

Sex-selection abortion has become so prominent in some Asian societies where having a male heir is highly valued that countries like China are now facing the challenge of having a large disparity in the young population between men and women.

Iceland has nearly eliminated Down syndrome among its population, not through medical advances to treat the condition, but through pre-natal testing that almost always leads to abortion. Two-thirds of unborn babies in the U.S. diagnosed with Down syndrome die through abortion.

In 1907, Indiana was a pioneer in establishing eugenics-inspired forced sterilization laws, which were eventually taken up by 27 states across the nation.

Perhaps it can now be at the forefront of enshrining into law a respect for the dignity of each person—born or unborn.

But as the principles of eugenics have long continued after the repealing of eugenics laws, pro-life people of all faiths or no faith at all have much work to do to build up a culture affirming life at all stages and conditions.

Many Catholics are doing their part in this through their prayerful witness at abortion centers, and also through the material and emotional support they give to mothers who, in the face of many challenges, reject abortion and instead choose life for their unborn children.

With the help of God’s grace, all of these efforts—legislative, spiritual and charitable—will help create a bright pro-life future for Indiana in place of its dark eugenics past.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

Local site Links: