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The Politics of Disability and Abortion in Post-Nazi Europe

A new book says abortion opponents in Europe are pushing disability rights as a reason to restrict abortions. These anti-abortion activists argue that ending a pregnancy over fetal abnormalities is an injustice to individuals who live with disabilities.

As a result, abortion following a prenatal diagnosis of congenital defects “has become one of the most fraught areas of bioethical and political controversy” in Europe, according to Professor Dagmar Herzog (The Graduate Center, CUNY). 

The debate is playing out in courts, in the media, “in parliamentary inquires and doctors’ offices, and in countless private lives,” she says in her book, Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe.  

Herzog argues that the issue is especially sensitive in Europe because of a terrible chapter of history. The Nazi regime murdered 275,000 people with disabilities in the 1930s and ‘40s. Individuals who were blind, deaf, physically handicapped, and mentally impaired were deemed “unworthy of life” and incompatible with an Aryan master race.

In postwar Europe, many countries actively restricted contraception and abortion to boost birthrates. But by the 1960s and ‘70s, Herzog says “the prevalence of illegal abortions” was an “open secret.” Estimates for West Germany were a million abortions a year, one for every birth; for France, 300,000 to a million a year; Italy, 800,000 to 3 million annually. The widespread disregard for laws against abortion led to decriminalization.

Then in the 1980s, religious entities with “aggressively sexually conservative versions of Christianity” sought to restrict sexual freedoms and “women’s rights to reproductive self-determination.”

Today the “dismantling of welfare state supports” makes it harder for families and individuals to cope with disabilities. Meanwhile, the argument that aborting a malformed fetus is “hurtful to living disabled individuals” sidesteps the fact that the vast majority of abortions have nothing to do with fetal abnormalities.

Herzog quotes one women’s rights activist as saying: “We cannot solve the problem of a cripple-hostile society on the backs of individual woman … We are not authorized to judge on what grounds women abort.”

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Work By

Dagmar Herzog (Distinguished Professor, History) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

The Graduate Center

Bonus Content

"Interview with Dagmar Herzog (podcast)" (New Books Network)
"Unlearning Eugenics in Post-Nazi Europe" (Journal of the History of Ideas)