The leak of the conservative-leaning Supreme Court’s draft opinion that would strike down the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling sent seismic shockwaves throughout the country this week. But as a scholar of history who understands the intersections of race and reproductive politics, I’m not the least bit surprised. When you understand what white supremacy requires to perpetuate itself, then you’ll stop clutching your pearls in disbelief.
Tens of millions of women, and female minors, are on the verge of losing autonomy over their private reproductive lives. Meanwhile, folks on the left of the political spectrum keep scratching their heads and questioning why conservatives care so much about unborn babies, but don’t care about children once they are born. These folks don’t have the proper lens through which to understand why these two things can be true and mutually constitutive.
You’ve likely seen some of the headlines. From the Washington Post: “GOP Opposition to Child Benefits Draws New Scrutiny After Roe vs. Wade Leak.” USA Today asks, “If you truly value life, you’ll ensure a healthy future for all ‘saved’ babies, right?” The Lexington Herald Leader issued a clarion call: “Vote out people who care more about a fetus than the woman carrying it.”
On social media there’s been similar commentary like this viral Twitter thread from TV and film writer Leila Cohan.
“If it was about babies, we’d have free lactation consultants, free diapers, free formula. If it was about babies, we’d have free and excellent childcare from newborns on. If it was about babies, we’d have universal preschool and pre-k and guaranteed after school placements.”
Clearly, Cohan and others do not understand the centrality of the child in white supremacy, and they miss the specter of white genocide by demographic replacement that has conservatives so scared that they have enacted hundreds of abortion restrictions since the early 1990s, with more than 100 passed in 2021 alone.
Despite the fact that the overall abortion rate has been declining for three decades, the anti-abortion movement, which has roots stretching back to the opening decade of the 20th century, is absolutely about babies. White babies to be exact. It’s not about saving white babies at the expense of other groups of children, it is about preserving the future of whiteness and white supremacy.
It’s no secret that the nation’s white population continues to decline. According to the 2020 Census, non-whites make up almost all the U.S. population growth. This demographic shift is stoking fears of “white replacement.” So, it makes sense to restrict white women’s access to abortions. White babies are key to white to the race’s ability to replace itself and maintain dominance.
This is not a new story. The latest anti-abortion movement is a remixed version of old nativist warnings about “race suicide.” If you enter that term in any historical news database, you’ll see that all the griping over the persistent decline in white birth rates started in the 1860s and then reached a fever pitch in the early 1900s as American cities were deluged with swarthy European immigrants, and as Black birth continued to be pathologized because it was no longer replenishing slave markets.
From the White House came the cry that more white children were needed. President Theodore Roosevelt was obsessed with the declining birthrate of native-born whites. In 1903 he warned that native-born whites were going to be outbred by foreigners. He repeatedly told white people that their highest and holiest duty was to bear all the children that nature will permit. These days for some GOP lawmakers that would include babies born as a result of incest and rape of minors. In an address before Congress, Roosevelt said: “Willful sterility is, from the standpoint of the nation, from the standpoint of the human race, the one sin for which the penalty is natural death, race death.”
During his presidency, Roosevelt tried to encourage the breeding of “crops of children” by sending letters of congratulations and checks for hundreds of dollars to white men who produced a dozen or more children. He pushed for legislation that would grant tax relief to families with more than two children and penalties on those who were unmarried, childless, or had two or fewer children. In fact, some state legislatures took up Roosevelts no race suicide agenda. For example, in 1907, an Illinois bill called for taxing bachelors. In Missouri, a bill before the legislature called for limiting a woman’s annual investment in head gear to two hats. These bills were deemed “laws to encourage matrimony.”
Some observers, including a few women’s groups, pushed back against Roosevelt. They noted the president saw white women as human incubators who were being forced to bring unwelcome children into a domestic stye reeking of misery and poverty. Roosevelt and other white supremacists, both male and female, didn’t care about white children being born without the mental, physical, or moral vigor, or proper material conditions to develop the best that was in them.
Echoes of Roosevelt’s cry continued deep into the 20th century. For example, in 1987 Ben Wattenberg, former advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote a popular book called The Birth Dearth. Check what he said:
“The major problem confronting the United States today is there aren’t enough white babies being born. If we don’t do something about this and do it now, white people will be in the numerical minority and we will no longer be a white man’s land. The third thing we could do is remember that sixty percent of the fetuses that are aborted every year are white. If we could keep that sixty percent of life alive, that would solve our birth dearth.”
The echoes continued in recent years. In 2017, Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican and vocal opponent of illegal immigration, tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The following year, Arizona lawmaker David Stringer gave a speech to a Republican group where he was heard saying, “there aren’t enough white kids to go around . . . the demographics of our country will be irrevocably changed.”
And it’s not just white men who’ve been pivotal players in the assault on reproductive rights. White women aren’t just passive victims. As Janell Ross has noted, white women have co-sponsored bills and dozens of women lawmakers have voted for abortion restrictions.
Once again for the people in the back: anti-abortion has always been about the preservation of the white race. And there is zero contradiction between conservatives advocating for the unborn and depriving them of good schools, health care, safe neighborhoods, protection against gun violence, access to healthy food and other resources so they can have quality childhoods.
Not only are white babies needed to carry on the white race, to “grow your population,” “strengthen your culture” and “strengthen your way of life,” as Rep. King said, but white America also needs to traumatize those same white babies physically, emotionally, and spiritually so they can grow up to accept violence and racism as natural and normal. As adults, they will then redirect all that deprivation, trauma, and rage onto people of color to maintain the dominance of the white race. White supremacy cannot continue without brutalization being seen as natural.
And yes, Black women will be disproportionately impacted by a ban on abortions. But don’t get it twisted, conservatives don’t care about Black or Brown unborn babies, or those who survive. They never have. Notice they’ve done nothing to address the chronically high infant and maternal mortality rates among Black people. They’ve been conspicuously silent about incidents of pregnant Black women being body slammed or tasered by cops. Even with these high rates of infant mortality and death among Black youth, white people are not having enough children to compete and stall their genetic winter.
If they could, conservatives would love to keep abortion legal for nonwhites. So they either have to keep abortion legal and have white people disappear, or make it illegal and have white people maintain dominance even if more Black and Brown babies will also be born.
The anti-abortion movement is absolutely about the unborn and born white babies. Folks make the ideological mistake of believing that white supremacy hates Black and Brown children and loves white children. White supremacy hates all children, including white children. Remember, white people are the descendants of Europeans who came from cultures with long histories of profound violence again children, which included rampant infanticide, enslavement, child sacrifice, sexual abuse, public hangings and corporal punishment.
Once we come to terms with the fact that white supremacy loves whiteness only then can we understand why it needs white children to be born but also subjected to deprivation and trauma as part of the initiation into the fraternity of white supremacy and a brutal world of racial politics. The ongoing anti-abortion movement is only one piece of the white supremacist puzzle.