On this day in 2009, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg controversial comments on abortion during an interview were published in The New York Times Magazine. What followed was an example of the political divide and sensationalism in this country today.
Justice Ginsburg’s comments during her interview with Emily Bazelon with New York Times Magazine were on the Court’s 1980 decision to uphold the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicare funding for abortions. The excerpt of the interview is below:
BAZELON: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae – in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.
Bazelon did not ask a follow-up question. Not surprisingly, Ginsburg’s “populations that we don’t want to have too many of” comment caused controversy and drew ire amongst conservatives, most notably Michael Gerson and Jonah Goldberg. It has also made the question “Does Ruth Bader Ginsburg Support Euginics?” a straight-faced name for a blog post. Others, like Conor Clark with The Atlantic have argued that Ginsburg’s comments were taken out of context.
In a 2012 article for Slate, Bazelon acknowledged that she should have asked a follow-up question for clarity. However, the article also included a clarification from Ginsburg, which stated:
Emily, you know that that line, which you quoted accurately, was vastly misinterpreted. I was surprised that the court went as far as it did in Roe v. Wade, and I did think that with the Medicaid reimbursement cases down the road that perhaps the court was thinking it did want more women to have access to reproductive choice. At the time, there was a concern about too many people inhabiting our planet. There was an organization called Zero Population Growth. In the press, there were articles about the danger of crowding our planet. So there was at the time of Roe v. Wade considerable concern about overpopulation.
Four years later, the whole thing seems absurd. Should Bazelon and her editor have sought clarification? Yes. Should pundits have given her the benefit of the doubt before drafting columns? Probably so. Did anyone learn any lessons from this? No.