“Don’t Know Much About History”

That old Sam Cooke tune should be Justice Alito’s theme song.

Distortion–or flat-out lying–about history hasn’t previously been a feature of Supreme Court decisions, although it’s nothing new in political discourse. (Remember the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman,” despite the fact that the statement was demonstrably false? Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage.)

Alito’s recitation of history in Dobbs has been rebutted by historians, and its falsity was recently the subject of a lengthy essay in the Guardian. 

As the essay notes, Alito claims that a reversal of Roe v Wade “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.”

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.

The essay also emphasized that anti-abortion fervor was not motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists.

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. 

As a similar post at FiveThirtyEight.com put it,” the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.”

Historians point to the numerous newspapers, lectures and sermons that led to the original criminalization of abortion by warning that Catholics and other foreign-born immigrants were likely to outnumber Protestant, native-born Americans. The essay cited one representative example– a 1903 editorial pointing out that the Protestant population of the US was increasing by 8.1% while the Catholic population was increasing by 21.8%, and characterizing those statistics as an “alarming condition of things.” The article noted that there were “on the average more than five abortions a month, none of them in Catholic families”. In case the message wasn’t sufficiently clear, the piece was headlined “Religion and Race Suicide”.

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.

The article is lengthy, but well worth your time to read; it contains a meticulous recitation of the thoroughly racist roots of opposition to abortion. My only quibble is that It gives only a nod to the White male patriarchy embedded in the numerous religious dogmas that require the subordination and submission of women. Without the benefit of that moral “fig leaf,” I doubt whether its clearly racist roots would have carried the movement so far.

I do absolutely agree with the essay’s conclusion:

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.

No matter how ahistorical that myth…


  1. The poor straight white man. He only controls everything. Poor baby. He is just terrified.

  2. Margaret Atwood wrote “A handmaidens Tale” as a story. She never thought the republicans would use it, along with 1984, as a guide book.

  3. patmcc; straight white men, men of all races seem not to have, or do not exercise, their control over “old one-eye”, their “package”, their “junk”, whatever affectionate name they give that part of their anatomy, or there would not be so many women being the only gender controlled by laws regarding pregnancy. All the way to the Supreme Court, only women are the defendants affected by law in these legal cases. The vast number of women having babies which are denied by the fathers are the only ones held responsible for them until age 18; court ordered financial support is ignored and not backed up by the courts in millions of cases. When men don’t pay court ordered child support it becomes a separate legal case and they must file, and pay for filing, new charges regarding fathers ignoring the court order. And the judicial system is controlled primarily by men creating these laws and overseeing the system enforcing them.

    “The essay also emphasized that anti-abortion fervor was not motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists.”

  4. Noted. The view from on high of the current Indiana State General Assembly is astounding. More than 75% men, almost all white, debating the anti-abortion women’s reproductive health. Did you notice the balcony listening on? More than 80% women. Folks … this is 2022?

  5. Once again, we flay the lying hypocrites who pass themselves off as “Justices”. They exhibit NO justice at all, only ideologically perverse screeds. Their decisions and actions are predicated on lies and their actions basically flip their middle fingers at the facts and the truth. That’s where we are in this decaying organism called the USA. Republicans, true to their creed and their masters, destroy everything they touch. Why? Because Republicans have ALWAYS been owned and operated by the capitalists. Simple answer to everything…

    Marx called it in 1850 and here we are. When money rules EVERY decision and when “religious” zealotry guides every moral decision, societies fail. History? That’s what history shows us and we are NOT learning from it. So, the aggrieved white male goes out and buys another AR-15 and a truckload of ammunition so he can feel strong. I wonder what Alito does to feel human.

  6. I want to see what the Court has to say about substantive due process and choice after the right-wing zealots have banned contraceptives and some state, oh, say, Texas, institutes a one-child policy for immigrants and women receiving public assistance. My bet is they’ll see no moral (or legal) problem with forcing a woman to end a pregnancy or give up her child. If you don’t think things like this can’t happen, just remember the eugenics movement and 45’s border policy.

  7. @ Patrick Sullivan, I’ve said for years that both sides have a vested interest in keeping the government out of childbirth/contraceptive issues, because a government that can ban an abortion is a government that can mandate an abortion. Wait & watch…However, don’t expect to see the same outrage on the right.

  8. Those lily white boys really think this will end abortion. HA
    It will end easy safe abortions.
    How many women will die while they figure out this was wrong?
    There’s 45k dying from gun shots every year so a few women from abortion isn’t their concern.
    The leading cause of death for children is mass shootings, not abortions.

    Regulate the guns.
    Come on guys. This is on you.
    Women couldn’t vote until the laws passed by MEN.
    Time to step up!

  9. In about 1970, just before Roe v. Wade, the US Air Force REQUIRED abortions for pregnant Air Force service members. The alternative was dishonorable discharge. You could not become a mother and remain in the service. (Fathers, no problem.)

    Military hospitals provided these REQUIRED abortions secretly even in states which had outlawed abortions.

    The US Air Force was and is an arm of the federal government.

    When Alito wrote of “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment . . . from the earliest days of the common law until 1973,” it was a flat-out lie.

  10. I wonder when people will stop being surprised that a conservative lied about something to get what he wanted?

    You have to admit it’s a clever/effective strategy though. Tell a short lie (it’s always been this way!) and force the other side to explain at length why and how you’re lying. People only remember the one sentence lie and don’t bother to even read the lengthy explanation as to why it’s a lie. Weaponizing tl;dr is pretty brilliant.

  11. The time has probably come, or it soon will, when one of THEIR wives, daughters, sisters, mothers or other female relatives may really require / need / want an abortion and will skulk off to the closest ob/gyn and get one. Money and transportation will also be no problem. This remains a woman’s body and a woman’s choice. That seems to have been lost in the dust and chaos of the actions by the ‘Supremes’ who really aren’t supreme at all anymore.

  12. Sorry – not surprised – they lie – they invent history/science/”facts” — truthiness
    Those outraged women/liberals/Democrats have been looking the other way for too long.

    Liberal agenda – equal rights, climate change, child care, health care, gun reform, tax equity, immigration reform —

    The REAL liberal agenda, as it SHOULD be (courtesy of me – arrogant bleeding heart liberal)
    FIRST you fix/secure the courts
    SECOND you secure the vote (which will no longer be overturned)
    The rest will come when all of the people vote and the courts don’t impose their theocratic vision.

    Sure, Manchin finally allowed some progress, and Sinema may go along, but everything is subject to review by the Supremes, and assuming the best midterms, with 54 Democratic Senators and a Republican house, the courts will remain as they are as will voter restrictions and gerrymandering.

    History will acknowledge the harm caused by that unholy duo. Sad.

    On the brighter side – one of the most brilliant political ads I have seen in my lifetime, and (1) I am a political junkie, and (2) I ain’t no spring chicken – this is the link with the cleanest view of the ad that I have found (I am not on Twitter) – It is from Mothers Against Gregg Abbott.

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