Abortion As Eugenics Tool: Harrison Brown and “The Challenge of Man’s Future”

Today, abortion is nearly always described in terms of a woman’s reproductive right in relation to family planning, but it is not understood that abortion was widely seen by eugenicists as a means of reducing the human population, and especially certain sub-populations (eg, black people, handicapped people, etc).  Part of this is intentional–if it was known that abortion had eugenic applications, then people might wonder if in fact abortion is used today for eugenic purposes.  Part of this is incidental–legal abortion, at least in the United States, was not even possible during the period in which eugenicists could speak openly, without concern about any stigma being associated with their discussions.  Thus, they usually kept their discussions centered on sterilization, especially compulsory sterilization.  Also, as a medical procedure, abortion has only relatively recently become something ‘safe.’  Today, drugs, even abortion-causing drugs, can do the trick.  Thus, as this is written, abortion is more than ever a useful eugenics tool.  Whether or not abortion is actually used for that end, or might be in the future, is a different subject.  This post is part of a series documenting the connection between abortion and eugenics, as the eugenicists themselves saw it.


The selection which follows by Harrison Brown is section 10 from chapter 7, “Patterns of the Future” from his book, The Challenge of Man’s Future.

Written in 1954, this excerpt is drawn from the 1964 eleventh printing by “Viking Press.”  It is known that there was at least another release, in 1984.  The book was in vogue in the period leading up to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision removing the ability of individual states to outlaw abortion on demand, and essentially making abortion on demand nationally available.  In that decision, there is this allusion to the relationship between abortion and population control:

We forthwith acknowledge our awareness of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy, of the vigorous opposing views, even among physicians, and of the deep and seemingly absolute convictions that the subject inspires. One’s philosophy, one’s experiences, one’s exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one’s religious training, one’s attitudes toward life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to color one’s thinking and conclusions about abortion.

In addition, population growth, pollution, poverty, and racial overtones tend to complicate and not to simplify the problem.

The author of that opinion may have been thinking of Harrison Brown‘s arguments in this very book.  Certainly Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, one of those who decided Roe vs. Wade,  was aware of the book–his endorsement of the book is portrayed prominently on that back cover:

The Challenge of Man’s Future cuts through today’s worries to the great risks that face civilization beyond the threats of Soviet imperialism.  The book puts together problems facing the entire world community, arising from population, food, raw materials, and industrialization–themes on which the best minds of all continents must soon be united.  It makes startlingly clear how American liberty and Asian hunger are linked irrevocably.  It challenges all men to find horizons far beyond the sights which the daily press sets for us.

Harrison Brown may not be very well known today, but he is certainly well known by one prominent American, a certain John P. Holdren, described as Harrison Brown’s protege (page 12), and one who wrote in memorial of Brown in 1987:  “The world will miss his insights and the energy he devoted to making it a better place.”

As recently as 2007, Holdren was holding Brown up as an inspiration.  In 1986, Holdren said this about Brown’s book:

Harrison Brown’s most remarkable book, The Challenge of Man’s Future, was published more than three decades ago. By the time I read it as a high school student a few years later, the book had been widely acclaimed…. The Challenge of Man’s Future pulled these interests together for me in a way that transformed my thinking about the world and about the sort of career I wanted to pursue. I have always suspected that I am not the only member of my generation whose aspirations and subsequent career were changed by this book of Harrison Brown’s.

Who is John P. Holdren?  Holdren is presently the so-called science ‘czar’ in the Obama administration.  In 1977, just four years after the passing of Roe vs. Wade, he penned a textbook with co-authors Paul and Anne Ehrlich (of The Population Bomb), which, in reference to concerns related to over-population, suggested that one of the things that may be useful is compulsory abortion.  Worryingly, he suggested that such measures would be justified under the U.S. Constitution…

Indeed, it has been concluded that compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society.


One way to carry out this disapproval might be to insist that all illegitimate babies be put up for adoption—especially those born to minors, who generally are not capable of caring properly for a child alone. If a single mother really wished to keep her baby, she might be obliged to go through adoption proceedings and demonstrate her ability to support and care for it. Adoption proceedings probably should remain more difficult for single people than for married couples, in recognition of the relative difficulty of raising children alone. It would even be possible to require pregnant single women to marry or have abortions, perhaps as an alternative to placement for adoption, depending on the society.


If some individuals contribute to general social deterioration by overproducing children, and if the need is compelling, they can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility—just as they can be required to exercise responsibility in their resource-consumption patterns—providing they are not denied equal protection.


In today’s world, however, the number of children in a family is a matter of profound public concern. The law regulates other highly personal matters. For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent a person from having more than two children?

As will be seen when we produce our excerpt from Brown’s book, Holdren seems to echo Brown’s views on abortion as a population control method, but also the need to give up national sovereignty to international organizations charged with managing global population.  Says Holdren:

If this could be accomplished, security might be provided by an armed international organization, a global analogue of a police force. Many people have recognized this as a goal, but the way to reach it remains obscure in a world where factionalism seems, if anything, to be increasing. The first step necessarily involves partial surrender of sovereignty to an international organization.

This website contains more disturbing remarks by Holdren and the Ehrlichs, as well as more context.  The reader is encourage to consult that page, remember that Holdren is the highest ‘science’ officer in the Obama administration, and also Brown’s ‘protege,’ then read the excerpt below.  The reader is then encouraged to consider anew the question the of just why abortion became the law of the land.

Lest anyone attempt to dispute that Brown had abortion in mind as an explicitly eugenic measure (and not merely one of population control, which is a different, but related issue), note that he himself describes it as eugenic, actually using that very word.

Excerpted under Fair Use provisions.


We have seen that population stabilization within a framework of low birth rates and low death rates is a major key to the avoidance of a collectivization and robotization of humanity and to the perpetuation of machine civilization. However, powerful arguments can be made to the effect that stabilization within such a framework over a long period of time is impossible, that sooner or later the starving margin will appear in all areas, and that populations will again be controlled by high death rates. These arguments have recently been expressed forcefully by Sir Charles Galton Darwin in his stimulating and highly provocative book entitled The Next million Years.1

Sir Charles’s argument takes the following form:

  1. Any nation which limits its population becomes less numerous than nations which do not limit their populations. The former will then sooner of later be crowded out of existence by the latter.
  2. A nation which limits its population forfeits the selection effects of natural biological competition and as a result must gradually degenerate.
  3. The tendency of civilization to sterilize its ablest citizens accelerates this process of degeneration.
  4. The possibility that statesmen, perceiving these dangers, might agree upon a world-wide policy of limitation appears remote. How can they be expected to agree among themselves in this area when they have failed to solve the far easier problem of military disarmament?
  5. Even if agreements among nations could be obtained, there would be great difficulty in establishing limits to the numbers admissible for the various populations.
  6. The problem of enforcement of population-limitation agreements would be extremely difficult.
  7. The probabilities of fanatical opposition to population limitation would be enormous. Although existing opposition is not, in the main, strongly emotional, it is likely that once population growth is forbidden by law, new creed will emerge which will regard the practice as sinful.
  8. The creedists, by multiplying more rapidly than the others, will make up an increasingly large fraction of the population, thus making enforcement increasingly difficult.
  9. Natural selection will operate in favor of parental, as distinct from sexual, instincts. Those persons who want large families will in general have more children than others, and tot he extent that this characteristic can be inherited, it would spread throughout the population.

These are indeed powerful arguments and, when considered together, they make the possibility of ultimate population stabilization within a framework of low birth rates and low death rates appear so remote as to border on the impossible. Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves: Can we visualize ways and means whereby these difficulties might be minimized?

In the first place, it is amply clear that population stabilization and a world composed of completely independent sovereign states are incompatible. Populations cannot be stabilized by agreement any more than levels of armament can be stabilized by agreement. And, as in the latter case, a world authority is needed which has the power of making, interpreting, and enforcing, within specified spheres, laws which are directly applicable to the individual. Indeed, population stabilization is one of the two major problems with which a world government must necessarily concern itself.

Given a world authority with jurisdiction over population problems, the task of assessing maximum permissible population levels on a regional basis need not be prohibitively difficult. A rancher in Nevada usually puts no more cattle on a range than he believes can be adequately supported. Similarly, working on the basis that individual regions of the world should be self-sufficient both agriculturally and industrially, indices of potential productivity can be computed for all regions of the world, and maximum permissible population levels can be calculated on this basis.

The more serious difficulty is that of creating a situation in which the birth rate more or less automatically adjusts itself to the death rate. In nature, the death rate automatically adjusts itself to the birth rate, and the adjustment requires no conscious directed effort. In the artificial world that has been created by man, an artificial mechanism must be devised which can be incorporated with man’s culture, which can operate automatically with a minimum of conscious effort, and which will permit birth rates to be determined by death rates.

If all babies were born from test tubes, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the solution would be fairly simple: The number o f babies produced on the production line each year could be made to equal the number of deaths. In years of unusually high death rates, the production line could be speeded up; in years of low death rates, the line could be slowed down. Further, if we cared little for human emotions and were willing to introduce a procedure which most of us would consider to be reprehensible in the extreme, all excess children could be disposed of much as excess puppies and kittens are disposed of at the present time. But let us hope it will be a long time before a substantial number of our babies are born from test tubes. And let us hope further that human beings will never again be forced to resort to infanticide in order to avoid excessive population pressure.

We know from experience that social and economic pressures, coupled with widespread knowledge concerning birth-limiting techniques, can result in net reproduction rates that are very close to unity. We have seen that the net reproduction rate in England and Wales dropped to well below unity for a period of about 25 years, and that the net reproduction rate in the United States hovered around unity during the great depression. We have seen further that the net reproduction rate is a very sensitive index to social and economic pressures, and that these pressures can change greatly in but a short span of time.

Clearly a prerequisite for long-range population stabilization is stabilization of economic and social condition to the point where birth rates will not fluctuate as widely as they do in industrial societies at the present time. Complete stabilization of such conditions is obviously difficult to achieve, and, from the point of view of individual freedom and human advancement, it is undesirable. Nevertheless, if economic and social pressures can be stabilized to the point at which the natural net reproduction rate does not fluctuate upward or downward by more than a few percent from year to year, adequate control mechanisms are conceivable.

Birth rates obviously cannot fluctuate widely if population stabilization is to be achieved. Net reproduction rates which are constantly greater than unity, or which are only slightly less than unity, can quickly lead to enormous population pressures or to the danger of extinction. Ideally, the net reproduction rate should be kept at unity with a precision which borders on the fantastic: 1.0000. In the light of this rigid requirement, we must ask: If the natural uncontrolled net reproduction rate fluctuates by several per cent, how can the actual net reproduction rate be controlled with such accuracy?

Here we must examine the actual conception rate as distinct from the natural conception rate and as distinct from the birth rate. The actual conception rate can be divided into two parts–the conception rate which occurs as the result of the natural course of events, plus the addition to the natural rate which results from special treatments such as artificial insemination or hormone injections. Secondly, the birth rate depends upon the abortion rate, which we know is fairly high in most industrialized areas. It is clear that by maintaining rigid control over aids to conception, in particular artificial insemination, and rates of induced abortion, birth rates could be controlled with high precision – provided, of course, that the fluctuations in natural rates of conception do not exceed the requests for aids to conception and for abortions.

Briefly, such a control system would operate in the following manner. Let us suppose that in a given year the birth rate exceeds the death rate by a certain amount, thus resulting in a population increase. During the following year the number of permitted inseminations is decreased, and the number of permitted abortion is increased, in such a way that the birth rate is lowered by the requisite amount. If the death rate exceeds the birth rate, the number of permitted inseminations would be increased while the number of abortions would be decreased. The number of abortions and artificial inseminations permitted in a given year would be determined completely by the difference between the number of deaths and the number of births in the year previous.

It can be argued that such a procedure would be ruthless and would deprive many people of their individual liberties. Yet would it be any more ruthless than the policy which is now followed in the United States? Only a small fraction of the populations would be affected. The vast majority of persons who might want to conceive would be able to do so, and the majority of those who might desire to terminate unwanted conceptions would be able to do so under hygienic conditions. Contrast this with the status quo, where abortion must be obtained frequently on kitchen tables, usually at great expense and under circumstances where the victims have the “freedom” to choose between giving birth to unwanted children and endangering their lives by subjecting themselves to illegal operations under insanitary conditions.

Control of aids to conception and of abortions could also provide a mechanism for slowing down the deterioration processes associated with the elimination of biological competition. Priorities for artificial insemination could be given to healthy women of high intelligence whose ancestors possessed no dangerous genetic defects. Conversely, priorities for abortions could be given to less intelligent persons of biologically unsound stock.

Such steps would undoubtedly contribute substantially to a slowing down of species deterioration. But it is clear that they would by no means be sufficient. A broad eugenics program would have to be formulated which would aid in the establishment of policies that would encourage able and healthy person to have several offspring and discourage the unfit from breeding at excessive rates. Here, of course, we encounter numerous difficulties – what would constitute “fit” and what would constitute “unfit”? Where is the boundary between the mentally deficient person and the genius?

These are indeed grave problems, and the probability is high that they will never be solved. Yet the possibility cannot be excluded that solutions may be found. Our knowledge of human genetics, of human behavior, and of human biochemistry is fragmentary. Two or three generations of intensive research aimed at understanding the functioning of the human machine might well enable us to define terms such as “fit” and “unfit,” as applied to human beings, with considerable precision. Although we realize that there is little likelihood that human beings will ever be able consciously to improve the species by carrying out a process of planned selection, there appears to be a finite possibility that, given adequate research and broad planning, deterioration of the species might eventually be halted.

Precise control of population can never be made completely compatible with the concept of a free society; on the other hand, neither can the automobile, the machine gun, or the atomic bomb. Whenever several person live together in a small area, rules of behavior are necessary. Just as we have rules designed to keep us from killing one another with our automobiles, so there must be rules that keep us from killing one another with our fluctuating breeding habits and with our lack of attention to the soundness of our individual genetic stock. On the other hand, although rules of behavior which operate in such areas are clearly necessary if our civilization is to survive, it remains to be seen whether or not such rules can be reconciled satisfactorily with the ideal of maximum individual freedom.

1New York: Doubleday and Company, 1953.




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  1. […] Learn more about John Holdren’s ideological pedigree, and some history of the eugenic fascination with abortion, here. […]

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