Intersecting Oppressions: Eugenics and the Reproductive Justice Movement

Although it is a subject often separated from mainstream history, eugenics policy and practices are woven throughout many contemporary and historical issues. Among these is the issue of reproductive rights. While eugenics advocates for the improvement of a population by either promoting a higher rate of reproduction among “fit” groups, and/or discouraging reproduction among those groups deemed less fit, reproductive rights issues deal with any individual’s right to choose whether or not to have children. Though these issues were relevant as far back as the turn of the century, in more recent decades advocates for reproductive rights have started the reproductive justice movement to address more contemporary “issues, practices, and policies related to reproduction, contraception, sterilization, sexual identity and family creation, as well as meanings and experiences of motherhood” [1]. Birthing Reproductive Justice: 150 Years of Images and Ideas traces this movement from it’s inception, and looks at the role that eugenics practices have played in shaping not only the history of these issues, but also the way that they are approached today.

Image courtsey of Reproductive Justice: 150 Years of Images and Ideas


The exhibition was created by a team at the University of Michigan using objects from their various library collections. Though it has since been moved online, it was originally installed at their graduate library as a companion to the conference Reproductive Justice: Activists, Advocates, and Academics, held at the university in 2013.The conference was a two-day meeting that sought to “explore and promote Reproductive Justice as a movement and framework that crosses disciplines and interest groups, and that explores core issues of gender, race, class, and power in considering the ability of women and men to decide to have children, not have children, and raise their children in a supportive society” [2]. Although this exhibition takes place at a library, it illustrates an opportunity for collaboration between museums, formal academics, and everyday activists to work together toward a common goal.

The first section of the exhibition, “Whose Reproductive Bodies,” looks at the way in which women’s bodies have historically been placed in the center of other social issues such as poverty, overpopulation, and criminality. One interesting part of this section is its discussion of some of the early activists in the feminist health movement. These women were largely white and middle-class, and often ignored the concerns of underrepresented populations such as men and women of color, the mentally and physically disabled, and the LGBTQ community. Moreover, many of these women were informed by both eugenics policy and and neo-Malthusian beliefs. Margaret Singer is just one example of this. A popular birth control activist and writer, she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.. Even still, Sanger was fairly outspoken about her belief in eugenics, and her ideas about birth control were largely informed by bias opinions about who should reproduce. In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger said:

I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world–that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin — that people can — can commit [3].

Image courtesy of Reproductive Justice: 150 Years of Images and Ideas


These opinions are echoed in the print “The Breeders of that Seventh Baby,” featured in the exhibition. Taken from the October 1918 edition of The Birth Control Review, edited by Sanger, the image features “the nation’s storehouse” filled to the brim with goods. Below a mass of people stand on a ground labeled “malnutrition, disease, over-child bearing” [4]. The image caption explains that one in every seven children in the United States dies from malnutrition or “from some disease directly traceable to poverty” [5]. Rather than perhaps addressing structural issues related to poverty, the image and caption suggests that keeping the poor from having more children than they can reasonable care for is necessary not only for the health of the children, but for the health of the nation.

The second and third sections of the exhibition, “Whose Knowledge?” and “Whose Birthing Practices?” continue to focus on how the ideas of power and choice have historically privileged white, middle-class women, and has excluded access to knowledge and reproductive care based on race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexuality, and disability. In Chicago in the mid-19th century, for example, the American Medical Association took legal measures to dismantle midwifery practices in order to encourage more women to use traditional physicians for birthing. This change disproportionately affected African-Americans who at the time enjoyed a strong tradition of midwifery.

The final section of the exhibit “Reproductive Justice Today” continues analyzing the rhetoric of choice commonly used in reproductive rights advocacy. While Burke and Castaneda point out that contemporary genetic testing services such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis may be seen as eugenic technologies, Reproductive Justice highlights advocacy organizations which address the intersectionality of oppressions, and do not ignore current policies which continue limit access to reproductive knowledge and services to underrepresented populations. These policies echo those historically tied to eugenic beliefs, and tie the issue of reproductive rights with both forward-thinking and oppressive goals.


[1] “Introduction” Birthing Reproductive Justice: 150 Years of Images and Ideas, accessed May 4, 2016.

[2] “What Activists and Advocates Taught Us About the Future of Reproductive Justice” The Feministwire, accessed May 4, 2016.

[3] Sanger, Margaret. Interview with Mike Wallace. The Mike Wallace Interview. September 21, 1957.

[4] “The Breeders of that Seventh Baby” in The Birth Control Review 2, no 5 (October 1918), 5.

[5] ibid.

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