The Racist Origins of U.S. Family-Planning Policy

The senators who originally designed our family planning policies believed that the mostly black welfare population was incurably lazy, promiscuous, intellectually substandard, and a burden on public schools, and, moreover, that they probably would remain so indefinitely. Birth control, therefore, was in their eyes a way to reduce the number of these undesirable people. This article is the second installment in a three-part series.

The stimulus package of 2009 originally included millions of dollars for family planning services each year. Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended this extra funding as a means of saving money, noting that by reducing births to the poor, the government could lower its welfare costs. In the first article in this series, I showed that this idea was already central to U.S. family planning policy as far back as the Nixon administration. In fact, family planning is currently the most favored service of Medicaid, and the federal government spends over $1 billion annually in order to suppress the birth rate of the poor. By law it must encourage poor girls who have reached puberty to begin using contraception. These policies have been in place since 1972, when the welfare laws were changed to impose a national family planning policy on all the states at once, overriding the local laws that generally encouraged parental consent. These provisions were written by the Senate Finance Committee during the first major overhaul of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society welfare laws.

This article appeals to transcripts from the committee hearings to argue that the committee enacted these policies out of racist, eugenicist motives. While the motives behind the American welfare system were originally idealistic—providing temporary assistance to needy families while they climbed out of poverty—the committee hearings show that the senators believed that the mostly black welfare population was incurably lazy, promiscuous, intellectually substandard, and a burden on public schools, and, moreover, that they probably would remain so indefinitely. Birth control, therefore, was in their eyes a way to reduce the number of these undesirable people.

Federal Contraception Funding and Racial Eugenics: The 1971-2 Welfare Reform

In 1972, during debates over H.R. 1, the welfare reform bill that had passed the House, George Welch of Benton Harbor, Michigan, appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to argue that too many people on welfare were having children out of wedlock, causing welfare costs in his city to spin out of control. Consider this key moment from the end of his formal statement, as found in the Congressional Record:

It is my strong belief that if anything should be done to curb the welfare problems of future generations that an incisive cut must be made into the accepted practices, of illegitimate births, especially as condoned and supported by public funds, for illegitimate births now pose an exponential rate of increase in the Nation. Unless these practices are reversed, future generations will suffer the costs, social stigma, and other burdens…

In the past year, 118 illegitimate children were born in the city hospital [in Benton Harbor] . . . 34 families with illegitimate children joined the city population in the [welfare] caseload from other places just this past month. We conclude that the AFDC caseload [Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a primary welfare program of the day] which comprises one-third of the city’s population must contribute to the rise in illegitimate births . . . All of these children will most likely attend the public schools . . . These data clearly show that illegitimate births are on the increase among females in the earlier years, as low as 11 years of age… The greater bulge is in the age bracket 16 to 19, where family planning might be considered, but we believe it should be made mandatory since mothers under 18, at the present time, are automatically eligible to be added to the grant of their parents . . . [emphasis added]

Making an important distinction, Welch argued that “In these instances we must be talking about birth-control programs rather than family planning.” Welch continued this line of reasoning when he proposed, in the name of thirty business leaders and corporations in his Michigan county, that contraception be made mandatory for welfare recipients:

These practices and the consequences to these lives are eroding our institutions, posing special human problems which we are simply unable to meet, and destroying the morale and will of the people throughout the area. We recommend that the committee give most serious consideration to include in the new standards a limit on the number of illegitimate children per family, with further requirements that it be mandatory that the mother participate in family planning programs and the father be identified for the purpose of enforced child support. [emphasis added]

The powerful chairman of the committee, Democrat Russell Long of Louisiana, a supporter of Jim Crow and a signer of the “Southern Manifesto” condemning Brown vs. Board of Education, was excited by this proposal:

Well, I want to say to you, Mr. Welch, that it is refreshing to hear somebody appear before the committee . . . who [has] some contact with the mainstream of the thinking in the United States and who can demonstrate a little common sense. We have heard some awfully ridiculous proposals made to this committee.

Senator Wallace Bennett (R-UT), seconds his praise:

I was just going to say these last two witnesses are probably more valuable to the committee than a dozen others we have been hearing today and the last few days. They get right down to the problem.

Likewise, Senator Clifford Hansen (R-WY), calls this statement “refreshing” and “excellent.” He then asks for a clarification:

The only question I have, Mr. Chairman, is this: . . . With respect to limiting the number of illegitimate births per family, it is your recommendation that that be accomplished by making it mandatory that the mother participate in family planning programs?

Mr. WELCH: Yes. I think in our area, Senator, we have launched planned parenthood [sic] programs and family planning clinics; they are beginning to show some productivity to this end and it would help us in our problems greatly if these people would be required to do that . . . The problems are highly debatable. However, in a community that is so overburdened and all of these youngsters are going to grow up in one situation go to one public school system, . . . [this] just simply is an overwhelming problem for us to try to cope with, to solve. [emphasis added]

Mr. Welch’s seemingly radical proposal—to require that women be on birth control as a condition for receiving welfare support—received a very favorable hearing from some powerful senators, who were otherwise worried about the explosion in illegitimacy.

Racial Stereotypes and Black Illegitimacy

A subtext throughout the hearings, made explicit in the testimony of experts from civil rights groups, was that the welfare population was overwhelmingly black, so that plans to use the welfare system for social engineering would disproportionately affect blacks. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had drawn attention a few years earlier to the sudden increase in black illegitimacy, and awareness of this fact also added racial overtones to the contraception proposals.

At one point, for example, Clarence Mitchell of the Washington, D.C. branch of the NAACP felt the need to reprimand Sen. Long for remarks suggesting that black people on welfare were lazy:

I do earnestly ask that you try to avoid the colorful descriptions of the welfare recipients, which themselves arouse prejudices in this country and make it difficult to pass these programs . . .

Mitchell also corrected Sen. Paul Fannin (R-AZ), another opponent of civil rights laws, when Fannin argued that mandatory birth control for welfare mothers was necessary to prevent these promiscuous women from having “regrettable” and “excessive” children. Mitchell pushed back, hard, against what he saw as Fannin’s prejudice:

I happen to be a member of the Methodist Church and I do take my religion seriously. I do not believe that any human has the right to say as a matter of law to a fellow human that “You may not reproduce.” And for that reason I would not favor any mandatory participation in a birth control program as a condition of receiving assistance. But I do think realistically we can do things to educate people to make use of what knowledge we have on birth control.

Mitchell asked the Senator to refrain from depicting the women on welfare as if they were “so unrestrained that they wind up with children on a kind of production line.” He even accused Sen. Fannin of trying to play God in his enthusiasm for mandatory birth control. These dramatic exchanges underlined what everyone in the room realized: mandatory birth control for those on welfare would quite directly lead to fewer African-Americans.

The Eugenicist “Compromise”

While this idea was attractive to some on the committee, as we have seen, it alarmed the NAACP and other civil rights groups, and after an intense lobbying effort they managed to change this very radical proposal before it left the committee. As a result of the deal, family planning would not be mandatory for individuals on welfare, but it would be mandatory for states to offer it for free through Medicaid, and it would be the most favored service in Medicaid. The committee’s family planning amendments to the welfare law were all adopted, and survive in current law, as characterized in the first article in this series.

The report emerging from the Finance Committee indicated that the idea behind these amendments was to shovel money to Planned Parenthood clinics so that they could quickly respond to the crisis of illegitimacy among the poor, especially teenagers:

The committee amendment would authorize States to make available on a voluntary and confidential basis family planning counseling, services, and supplies, directly and/or on a contract basis with family planning organizations (such as Planned Parenthood clinics and Neighborhood Health Centers) throughout the State, to present, former, or potential recipients including any eligible medically needy individuals who are of child-bearing age and who desire such services. The Secretary would be required to work with the States to assure that particular effort is made in the provision of family planning services to minors (and non-minors) who have never had children but who can be considered to be sexually active. [emphasis added]

This paragraph has been cited by federal courts as an authoritative expression of Congress’ intent. In the case T.H. v. Jones (1975) a federal district court cited this paragraph to strike down a Utah law requiring parental notification as a condition for a minor receiving Medicaid-funded contraception. The court rejected the idea that the central goal of the program was to give financial support to consenting adults in their reproductive decisions, so that Utah’s parental consent rules would not alter the program’s substance. Rather, it held that it was central to the intention of Congress in funding family planning that all minors who have reached puberty be eligible. The Supreme Court in 1976 upheld this interpretation.

The explicit mention of Planned Parenthood is interesting, if not surprising—after all, they were the main lobbyists for this law, which has earned them billions in government funds since its enactment. Although today Planned Parenthood often portrays its activities as simply enabling individual women to plan their pregnancies, it is clear that the Senate viewed the organization instead as an instrument of a government policy designed to limit the number of children born to poor women. As Welch put it, birth control, not planned pregnancies, was the Senate’s goal. Planned Parenthood readily accepted the government funds under those conditions, and has continued to lobby for expansions of this same program, as the third article in this series will detail.

Congress had refrained from making contraception mandatory for those on welfare. But it did mandate that the federal and state governments promote contraception rather than simply offer it to those who asked for it. While birth control was still voluntary, the government would henceforth push it heavily among the welfare population. Children of the poor would be encouraged by the state to go on birth control before they became sexually active, and their parents were not to be involved in the decision without the child’s permission.

While this policy was partly justified as a cost-cutting measure, that motive cannot explain the unique place of contraception in Medicaid. If it were part of a general strategy to reduce long-term costs through preventative medicine, that explanation might suffice. But as noted in the first article, no other category of preventative medicine under Medicaid receives treatment similar to contraception. In the context of the derogatory comments made by members of Congress about the lifestyles of minorities on welfare, and their quite serious consideration of imposing mandatory birth control on the welfare population, it becomes hard to deny that the extraordinary treatment of family planning under Medicaid was designed to further racist, eugenicist ends. Absent those ends, it is hard to justify giving it this singular treatment.

All subsequent welfare family planning programs work within this same policy framework. As Nancy Pelosi’s comments revealed, even today supporters still appeal to the same eugenicist logic when defending the special status of birth control in welfare. The third article in this series shows how the Clinton Administration perpetuated this same lethal logic.

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