Norman Finkelstein on Abortion, Roe, and the Alito Opinion
May 4, 2022
Editor’s Note: In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It!, Norman Finkelstein addresses whether it’s legitimate to suppress speech on the grounds that the speech is socially “regressive.” Finkelstein answers in the negative, and illustrates his point by considering the abortion debate.
P.C., cancel culture—they pretend to be the avant-garde of progressive ideas. Whoever opposes them is retrograde, a benighted fool. “I have seen the future, and it works,” muckraking Progressive-era journalist Lincoln Steffens announced in 1919 after returning from Bolshevik Russia. Positioning oneself on the right side of history before History has rendered its verdict, it’s a tricky business.
If Bolshevism was the progressive cause du jour internationally in the first half of the 20th century, eugenics was all the rage domestically in progressive circles. A veritable Who’s Who of progressive thinkers—Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and Helen Keller in the US; Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells in the UK—embraced the eugenical improvement of the human race via scientific breeding. States in the Union that had “enlightened” governments such as Wisconsin passed mandatory sterilization laws to weed out “defectives” (those born with congenital handicaps and illnesses) and the “feebleminded” (those possessed of low morals and I.Q.s, which were said to go hand-in-hand). Such legislation met resistance, however, in the “backward,” God-fearing Protestant Bible-Belt states of the Deep South, as they embraced the sanctity of our common humanity (salvation was within reach of all God’s children). Eventually, however, the Deep South, too, fell into line as these states succumbed before the juggernaut of “progress.”
The legality of state-enforced sterilization came before the US Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927). The defendant, Carrie Buck, along with her mother and daughter, was alleged to be feeble-minded. (There appears to have been no evidentiary basis for this contention.) Revered Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld not just the legality but also the desirability of sterilization. “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The most progressive member of the Court, Judge Brandeis, voted with the eight-person majority. The sole dissenter, Judge Butler, was a devout Catholic. (The Catholic Church was the first institutional bastion in the US to oppose eugenic sterilization, not just on account of its opposition to birth control, but also because of its theological commitment to the sanctity of all human life regardless of eugenic “fitness.”) It was not until the Nazis carried this progressive idea to its logical conclusion that it fell into disfavor.
The verdict of History is crystal clear: those beholden to science—the “progressives”—were wrong, those in thrall to religion—the “regressives”—were right. The right to sterilize was about government interference in the reproductive process; the right to abort is about barring government interference in it. But at bottom the moral stake is arguably the same: the sanctity of human life. The devout opposed sterilization then and oppose abortion now, whereas progressives supported sterilization then and support abortion now.
Feminist one-trick pony Katha Pollitt deems a woman’s right to abortion the litmus test of feminism: to support abortion is to support the march of progress. But is it that simple? The long arc of civilization would seem to bend toward an ever more inclusive notion of human life. In his utopian blueprint, Plato posited that “defective offspring will be quietly and secretly disposed of”—in effect, he sanctioned selective infanticide of, among others, “de