Roe’s Race: The Supreme Court, Population Control, and Reproductive Justice

50 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2012

See all articles by Mary Ziegler

Mary Ziegler

Florida State University - College of Law

Date Written: September 17, 2012


Questions of race and abortion have shaped current legal debates about defunding Planned Parenthood and banning race-selection abortion. In these discussions, abortion opponents draw a close connection between the eugenic or population control movements of the twentieth century and the contemporary abortion-rights movement. In challenging legal restrictions on abortion, abortion-rights activists generally insist that their movement and its predecessors have primarily privileged reproductive choice.

Notwithstanding the centrality of race to abortion politics, there has been no meaningful history of the racial politics of abortion that produced or followed Roe v. Wade. This article closes this gap in the abortion discussion by focusing on the racial politics of abortion in the 1970s. In the 1970s, some population controllers did have ties to the eugenic legal reform movement or a particular interest in limiting the growth of poor, non-white populations. Those groups most closely involved with the abortion-rights movement, however, primarily focused on family planning for white, middle-class families, emphasizing the importance of environmental stewardship and sexual liberation. Arguments treating the abortion-rights, population control, and eugenics movements as indistinguishable from one another are flawed.

At the same time, by reinterpreting Roe, feminists created new opportunities to reshape the racial politics of abortion. By defending their own understanding of the opinion against antiabortion attack, feminists were able to redefine abortion as a right that belonged to women irrespective of its political consequences.

The article shows that, by grounding the discussion in proper historical context, discussion of race and abortion will be more principled and productive. Abortion opponents can fairly discuss the history of the family planning movement, but blurring any distinction between the abortion-rights movement and its predecessors is problematic and misleading. In turn, abortion-rights activists should address the past relevance of population-based claims, acknowledging the contributions of those who worked to redefine abortion as a woman’s right.

Suggested Citation

Ziegler, Mary, Roe’s Race: The Supreme Court, Population Control, and Reproductive Justice (September 17, 2012). Saint Louis U. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-26, Available at SSRN: or

Mary Ziegler (Contact Author)

Florida State University - College of Law ( email )

425 W. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States

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