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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Reproductive Violence, Judge Kavanaugh, and the Legacy of Eugenics in the United States

Maggie Leppert, NCIL Violence and Abuse Subcommittee

NCIL logo - National Council on Independent LivingWith the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee Judge Kavanaugh scheduled for September, the disability community has banded together to oppose his appointment. One reason for this opposition is Kavanaugh’s 2007 ruling in Doe ex rel. Tarlow v. D.l where he ruled against a group of disabled women who were forced to have elective surgery without their consent, including 2 women who were subjected to non-consensual abortions. Kavanaugh defended his decision by saying “accepting the wishes of patients who lack (and have always lacked) the mental capacity to make medical decisions does not make logical sense.”

Kavanaugh’s decision in this case is an example of state-sponsored reproductive violence, a form of gender-based violence that involves control of a victim’s reproductive systems and choices. Reproductive violence against people with disabilities is perpetuated today through sexual violence, forced sterilization / surgery, adoption restrictions, disparities in access to healthcare and reproductive education, and manipulative use of contraception.

Reproductive violence is a legal, social, and cultural phenomenon. This type of violence against disabled people can be traced back to the eugenics movement. In the early 1900s, in an attempt to eliminate “feeble-minded” populations and curtail “unfit” reproduction, tens of thousands of people with actual or perceived disabilities were forcibly sterilized. Many of these compulsory sterilization laws stayed in place until the 1980s. Today, sterilization for adults and children with disabilities is still common, while the legacy of eugenics lives on in the assumption that disabled lives are seen as inherently sad, easily controllable, and in need of prevention or, even worse, elimination. 

At the core of reproductive violence and eugenics is the cultural belief that, as disabled people, our bodies are not really our own and are subject to control. This idea has led to widespread ableist violence. People with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to experience violence and 7 times more likely to experience sexual violence than their non-disabled counterparts, according to the US Bureau of Justice and research by Joe Shapiro and NPR. The experience of sexual and reproductive violence is also a gendered and racialized phenomenon, with women and trans people of color at significantly increased risk for victimization.

The Supreme Court has historically been used to reinforce eugenics; for example, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v Bell in 1927, in which the Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s forced sterilization against “feeble-minded” individuals, allowed states to massively expand their own eugenics programs. It is this history and context that makes Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination all the more frightening. His appointment could usher in a new era of state-sponsored eugenics.

As Autistic advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown says, “We know hate and we know violence, because it is written on our bodies and our souls.” As disabled self-advocates and allies, we must continue to recognize this violence as it comes and fight to oppose its entrance into our laws.

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