When the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade on 24 June, permitting the state criminalisation of abortion in America, the only thing everyone could agree on was that it was a historic decision. Unfortunately for America, the history it was based on was largely fake. The ruling, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, claims that in reversing Roe v Wade, the court restores the US to “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment [that] persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973”, when Roe legalised abortion. This assertion, however, is easily disproven.As historians have exhaustively explained, early American common law (as in Britain) generally permitted abortions until “quickening”, or perceptible foetal movement, usually between 16 to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Connecticut was the first state to ban abortion after quickening, in 1821, which is roughly two centuries after the earliest days of American common law. It was not until the 1880s that every US state had some laws restricting abortion, and not until the 1910s that it was criminalised in every state. In the wake of Dobbs, social media was awash with examples from 18th- and 19th-century newspapers that clearly refuted Alito’s false assertion, sharing examples of midwives and doctors legally advertising abortifacients, Benjamin Franklin’s at-home abortion remedies, and accounts of 19th-century doctors performing “therapeutic” (medically necessary) abortions.
Dobbs’s inaccurate claims about the history of US abortion law is one of many reasons why it is so controversial. It is arguably the most divisive ruling since 1857, when the supreme court found that Dred Scott, who had been enslaved and was suing for his freedom, had no standing in US federal courts as a Black man. The Dred Scott decision was a casus belli of the US civil war four years later, and there are many reasons to fear that Dobbs could prove as divisive.
Another proximate cause of the civil war was the Fugitive Slave Act, which led Harriet Beecher Stowe to write what was until 1936 the most popular American novel ever, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, condemning the cruelty of slavery and the insanity of the fugitive slave laws. The Fugitive Slave Act impelled states to return enslaved humans to their enslavers, even if they were residing in free states that did not recognise slavery, and financially incentivised remanding people into slavery. It was this division that prompted Lincoln to give his famous “house divided” speech, saying that a nation could not endure half-slave and half-free: because an individual’s human rights were drastically changing from state to state. Dobbs has created for pregnant women an analogous situation to the fugitive slave laws, with the bounty hunter laws it has permitted in states like Idaho and Texas, where women may be prosecuted by the state in which they reside for obtaining an abortion beyond its borders. It will create legal chaos, triggering inter-state conflict, as fights over extradition and a state’s legal rights beyond its own borders will certainly erupt once more.
But there is yet another, less well-known cause for all this in civil-war era America. Although most people today assume that anti-abortion laws were motivated by moral or religious beliefs about a foetus’s right to life, that is far from the whole story. In fact, the first wave of anti-abortion laws were entangled in arguments about nativism, eugenics and white supremacism, as they dovetailed with a cultural panic that swept the US in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of the vast changes in American society wrought by the conflict. This panic was referred to at the time in shorthand as “race suicide”.
The increasing traction today of the far-right “great replacement theory”, which contends that there is a global conspiracy to replace white people with people of colour, and has explicitly motivated white supremacist massacres in the US, is often said to have originated with a French novel called The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail. Published in 1973, the same year that Roe v Wade enshrined American women’s rights to reproductive autonomy, it is a dystopian account of “swarthy hordes” of immigrants sweeping in and destroying western civilisation. But there were many earlier panics over “white extinction”, and in the US, debates around abortion have been entangled with race panic from the start. The fight to criminalise abortion may have successfully passed itself off as a moral crusade, but its origins are rooted in a political one.The idea of “race suicide” was popularised in the early 20th century largely by Theodore Roosevelt, who urged white women to have more babies to protect “native” American society against “diminishing birth rates”. He harangued Americans that “intentional childlessness” rendered people “guilty” of being “criminals against the race”. Roosevelt gave speeches declaring: “I believe in children. I want to see enough of them and of the right kind.”
The Dobbs opinion explicitly rejects arguments that anti-abortion laws were historically motivated by eugenicist nativism, rather than by religious or moral beliefs. It says that the opposition was only able to produce “one prominent proponent” of the idea that earlier anti-abortion laws were driven by “fear that Catholic immigrants were having more babies than Protestants and that the availability of abortion was leading White Protestant women to ‘shirk their maternal duties’”. Yet even a cursory survey of American discourse a century ago shows how utterly ubiquitous this idea was, as newspapers and lectures and sermons warned that abortion would mean that Catholics and other foreign-born immigrants would outnumber Protestant, native-born Americans. To take just one example among thousands, a 1903 editorial on population statistics noted that the Protestant population of the US was increasing by 8.1% while the Catholic population was increasing by 21.8%. This “alarming condition of things” was reflected by physicians reporting “on the average more than five abortions a month, none of them in Catholic families”. The piece was headlined “Religion and Race Suicide”.
As a concept, “race suicide” goes back to the aftermath of the civil war. The fundamental problem of primogeniture – ensuring the legitimacy of property succession in a male-dominated society – had an even nastier twist in a slave society. Under the laws of American slavery, the more children a Black woman produced, the more human capital her enslaver acquired, while the more white children a white woman produced, the more political capital white men accrued in a representative democracy in which only white men voted and made laws on behalf of all white citizens. But the civil war, and the civil rights amendments that followed it, upended the legal foundations for that old racial and gendered hierarchy. They would have to be rebuilt, and controlling Protestant white women’s reproduction to ensure the reproduction of the Protestant elite was central to that project.
The war had devastated a generation of white men, with estimates of around 750,000 dead, or 2.5% of the population, as the ratio of white men to women plummeted after the war. White women were gaining self-determination, forcing their way into higher education and professions. (Men were fighting back: as historians have shown, when American male doctors professionalised in the mid-19th century, one of their projects was to hobble the competition by undermining the legitimacy of midwives and nurse practitioners in caring for pregnant women, and assert their sole control over women’s reproduction, which included supporting anti-abortion laws, except when under their care.) Contraception and medical standards were improving while urban industrialisation mitigated against the need for large families to work farms. As a result, white Americans’ fertility rates dropped precipitously across the 19th century, with families having an average of seven children in 1800, falling to four by 1900. A newly emancipated racial “underclass” was suddenly shifting the nation’s power structures, even as huge waves of immigration threatened to undermine Anglo-Saxon cultural and political dominance.
Already in existence as a phrase, “race suicide” rapidly became shorthand for the protection of “white purity”. The expression was used in the former Confederate states to describe mixed-race marriages: an 1884 editorial railed against anyone who “approves of miscegenation” for tolerating “the great shame and crime of race suicide”. It was invoked to restrict Asian immigration: to allow “coolie competition,”, wrotedeclared a 1900 editorial in baldly racist terms, “is to commit race suicide”.
Soon spokesmen for the patriarchal class (politicians, physicians, preachers and professors) were making explicit claims about the racial obligations of Protestant adults to sustain their political dominance.
When Roosevelt and other prominent figures such as sociologist Edward A Ross took up the cry, a panic about “race suicide” began sweeping the nation, as elite Americans explicitly discussed how to maintain their political dominance if their numbers were dwindling. “Anti‑race suicide clubs” were formed, as students at Ivy League universities pledged to have no fewer than five children. By 1918, the US army’s campaign for sexual “hygiene” among soldiers included an educational film called “Beware of Race Suicide!” Meanwhile, editorials across America called for lawmakers to “prevent the awful waste of life at present so great due to abortions and stillbirths: and, more important still, to refuse the right of marriage to the hopelessly diseased and unfit”. The argument was straightforwardly eugenicist; soon it was shaping bestselling books, such as Madison Grant’s 1916 The Passing of the Great Race, which Hitler referred to as his bible.
When the resurgent Ku Klux Klan paraded in Louisiana in 1922, they bore banners that read “White Supremacy”, “America First”, “One Hundred Per Cent American”, “Race Purity” and “Abortionists, Beware!” People are sometimes confused by the Klan’s animus against abortionists, or impute it to generalised patriarchal authoritarianism, but it was much more specifically about “race purity”: white domination can only be maintained by white reproduction.
Along the way, improvements in medical science had revealed the gradual development of a human foetus and eliminated the simpler idea of quickening, as moral and existential questions about the beginnings of human life became more complex. By the late 1920s and 30s, the successful criminalisation of abortion had sent it underground, while purporting to protect the purity of white women. By 1938, abortion had become so synonymous with the phrase that a film about a criminal abortion ring that preys on young women was titled Race Suicide.
In a forgotten 1928 bestseller called Bad Girl, a married young white woman considers an abortion to maintain her freedom; having decided to keep the baby, she casually employs a racist slur in thinking about the Black mothers with whom she will have to share a ward: “But I guess you don’t care who your neighbours are once the pain starts,” she reflects. The same point is made from an anti-racist perspective in Langston Hughes’s 1936 story Cora Unashamed, in which a white girl dies from the abortion her mother forces her to undergo rather than see her bear the child of a Greek immigrant. Cora, the Black protagonist, although racially and economically subjugated, has at least borne her own illegitimate mixed-race child free of these lethal hypocrisies.
It was the same year Margaret Mitchell published Gone With the Wind, which replaced Uncle Tom’s Cabin as America’s bestselling novel. It is also, by no coincidence, a tale of slavery and the civil war, although instead of condemning slavery, it defends it and condemns the war that ended it. The plot of Gone With the Wind is driven less by war, however, than by pregnancy and childbirth. Melanie Wilkes narrowly survives her first labour only to die following a later miscarriage. Scarlett miscarries one child, loses a daughter and contemplates a back-alley abortion.
This focus on the dangers of pregnancy for 19th-century women is part of Gone With the Wind’s white feminism – but is also inextricable from its white supremacism. Melanie won’t move north after the war because her son would go to school with Yankees and Black children. Wanting her children to bear witness, and to bear power, she teaches them to hate the Yankees, “who have set the darkies up to lord it over us, who are robbing us and keeping our men from voting!” Scarlett thinks in similar terms when contemplating her plantation Tara, “the red earth which would bear cotton for their sons and their sons’ sons.” Meanwhile Rhett’s love for the daughter he forcibly stops Scarlett from aborting is more than paternal adoration and displaced love for Scarlett. Mitchell also makes clear that Rhett’s devotion to his daughter is a reflection of his dedication to his people – his race – and his determination not to let them die out.
By 1939, the year Gone With the Wind premiered as a film, the subtext of “race suicide” had become manifest. Reporting the latest population statistics, a California paper declared “the race suicide prophecies we have heard for many years don’t seem to have been justified”, as “there’s evidently life in the white race yet”.
Fifteen years later, the United States launched into another of its periodic surges of violence in the onward fight for civil rights and a multiracial democracy. Another landmark supreme court ruling, Brown v Board of Education in 1954, desegregated American public schools. In response, social conservatives began setting up private Christian schools, which also happened to be all-white. As late as 1968, evangelicals at a symposium refused to denounce abortion as a sin, “citing individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility as justifications for ending a pregnancy”. But with the passage of Roe in 1973, the picture altered, as ever more single women began exercising their rights to bodily autonomy. At the same time, the Nixon administration decided to remove the tax-exempt status of segregated white Christian schools, causing leading social conservatives to seek a wedge issue. As historians have shown, archival correspondence reveals they found in abortion a socially acceptable pretext for a battle that would mobilise social conservatives and allow them to fight for white Christian patriarchy as they understood it, reproducing their dominance.
The day after Dobbs revoked American women’s right to reproductive autonomy, Republican congresswoman Mary Miller of Illinois publicly thanked Donald Trump, “on behalf of all the MAGA patriots in America”, for putting on to the court the justices who created “the historic victory for white life in the supreme court”. She later claimed it was a slip of the tongue, but the crowd cheered nonetheless. Anyone who was startled by this reaction to the injection of race into a decision supposedly about women’s rights does not know the history of abortion law in America. It has always been a contest not only over women’s reproduction, but also over the reproduction of political power – because in a (putatively) representative democracy, power is a function of population. The assault on women’s rights is part of the wider move to reclaim the “commanding place” in society for a small minority of patriarchal white men. And, as Alito’s decision shows, where legal precedent and other justifications cannot be found, myth will fill the vacuum.