Every year or so, some right-winger in America lets fly in public with a ripe salvo of racism, and the liberal watchdogs come tearing out of their kennels, and the neighborhood echoes with the barks and shouts. The right-winger says he didn't mean it, the president "distances himself," and the liberals claim they're shocked beyond all measure. Then, everyday life in racist America resumes its even course.

This past week it's been the turn of that conservative public moraliser, William Bennett. He should have known better than to loose off a hypothetical on his radio show. Announce publicly that "if you wanted to reduce crime, you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down," and many Americans reckon that's no hypothesis, that's a plan waiting to happen.

Of course that's what Bennett did say, and he should have known better. Americans mostly don't understand hypotheses, any more than they feel at ease with irony. Particularly in the age of the Internet, literalism is the order of the day. Qualifications such as Bennett added (to the effect that this would be "an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do") are useless.

The deeper irony here is that liberals have pondered longer and deeper than conservatives on how exactly to carry out Bennett's hypothetical plan, either by sterilization or compulsory contraception.

Before Hitler and his fellow Nazis (who said they had learned much from U.S. sterilization laws and immigration restrictions) made the discipline unfashionable, eugenics and the prevention of socially unworthy babies were hot topics among America's social cleansers.

The keenest of these cleansers were not Southern crackers but Northern liberals. States pioneering sterilization laws included Robert La Follette's Wisconsin and Woodrow Wilson's New Jersey. Around the country, after Indiana led the way in 1909, eugenic sterilization was most energetically pushed by progressive politicians, medical experts and genteel women's groups. In the mid-1930s, Alabama's governor, Bibb Graves, vetoed a sterilization bill enthusiastically passed by the legislature. The populist Graves cited "the hazard to personal rights."

Behind this sterilization drive was the Malthusian fear that poor people reproduce at a faster rate than rich ones or those endowed with a high IQ. The highly regarded biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in his 1949 book "Biology: Its Human Implications" that "Either there must be a relatively painless weeding out before birth or a more painful and wasteful elimination of individuals after birth ." If we neglect a program of eugenics, will the production of children be non-selective? By 1968, Paul Ehrlich, in his "Population Bomb," was urging a cutback in government programs of "death control," i.e., public health. Nixon cut health benefits and pumped money into population control.

Allan Chase, in his "The Legacy of Malthus," says 63,678 people were compulsorily sterilized in America between 1907 and 1964 in the 30 states and one colony with such laws. But there were hundreds of thousands more sterilizations that were nominally voluntary but actually coerced. Chase quotes federal judge Gerhard Gesell as saying in 1974, in a suit brought on behalf of poor victims of involuntary sterilization, "Over the past few years an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 low-income persons have been sterilized annually by state and federal agencies." This rate equals that achieved in Nazi Germany.

Gesell said that "an indefinite number of poor people have been improperly coerced into accepting a sterilization operation under the threat that various federally supported welfare benefits would be withdrawn unless they submitted to irreversible sterilization. Patients receiving Medicaid assistance at childbirth are evidently the most frequent targets of this pressure."

Writing toward the end of the 1970s, Chase reckoned that probably at least 200,000 Americans per year were the victims of involuntary and irreversible sterilization.

In the mid-1990s, liberals flourished the same basic hypothesis as Bennett. They said there was a cycle of poverty and welfare dependency that bred crime. In 1994, Arizona and Nebraska prohibited welfare increases for recipients who had additional babies while on the dole. Connecticut in the same year gave serious consideration to a bill providing additional subsidies for welfare mothers who accepted a contraceptive implant (called Norplant).

Though race specific terms were usually avoided by eugenicists, who preferred words like "weak minded" or "imbeciles" (a favorite of that enthusiast for sterilizing, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a jurist much admired by liberals) the target was, by and large, blacks. What direct sterilization could not prevent, incarceration or medically justified confinement has also sought to achieve.

Bill Bennett didn't know the half of it. He was about a century behind the curve.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.