THE BLOG

Rand Paul's Gattaca Adventure

11/07/2013 12:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Pity the poor freshman senator from Kentucky whose political operation seems to be run by a collection of sophomores.

We have all now heard that Rand Paul has been writing op-eds and delivering speeches that aren't precisely his own. Plagiarism is such an ugly word, but plagiarize is what Senator Paul has done (and blaming the misdeeds on staff members who are, in fact, writing your material doesn't excuse those errors -- it actually compounds them).

Plagiarism in the digital age is so easy and so tempting. Google, copy, paste, repeat. But as I tell my students, the Wikipedia you have on your computer is the same one I have on mine, and it will take me exactly as long to find your cheating as it took you to execute it.

But that isn't the reason Senator Paul should take one of my classes. If Senator Paul were one of my students I could help him sort out the history that he got so wrong in his plagiarized speech, history which has been overshadowed by the plagiarism itself.

Paul went to Liberty University, the House that Falwell built, to campaign on behalf of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. In his speech, Paul attacked those who supported abortion rights by comparing them to the people who ran the eugenic dystopia portrayed in the science fiction movie Gattaca.

I confess that when I first heard about this I flashed back seven years to Senator Rick Santorum's truly memorable speech on the Senate floor where he invoked J.R.R. Tolkien's "eye of Mordor" to defend the Iraq war. Thankfully, about three weeks after that bizarre episode Santorum became an ex-senator, but it does make you wonder just how many Republican presidential hopefuls have gotten their world view from fantasy novels and sci-fi movies.

But the larger issue here, beyond the kooky, plagiarized resort to Gattaca, is that the analogy is backward by exactly 180 degrees. Across the last century eugenics has been permitted precisely in those places where women do not have the freedom of reproductive choice. Eugenics has been a hallmark of those governments that want to control women's rights by controlling their bodies.

In 1966, for example, the Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu made all forms of contraception illegal for women who had fewer than five children. That apparently didn't satisfy his need to control Romanian women, so 20 years later he created a system to monitor all pregnant women. Miscarriages became the subject of criminal investigation.

Nazi Germany stands as the most horrifying example of a eugenic regime, and it is worth remembering that among the very first things the Third Reich did in 1933 was to outlaw abortion. Ten years later, Hitler made abortion a capital crime. Not to be outdone, Stalin also outlawed abortion in 1936. Both dictators clearly saw control of women's reproductive rights as central to the apparatus of state control and oppression.

Once a state decides it can control women's reproductive freedom in one way, it is just as likely to control it in other ways as well. Perhaps the best example of this is China, where the "one child policy" limits couples' decisions about having children and where reports of forced abortions and sterilization continue to swirl.

In other words, allowing women (and the rest of us, by the way) the freedom to make choices about reproduction does not lead us to Gattaca, Senator Paul. That threat comes precisely from laws that control what decisions we can and cannot make about having children.

Nor do you have to look overseas for examples that prove that point. You have only to look as far as... Virginia, where Paul made his silly speech. In 1924 Virginia passed a forced sterilization law and between 1924-1979 used it over 7000 times. Almost two thirds of those sterilized by the commonwealth were women. Sounds like Gattaca to me, and just in case Senator Paul has missed the point: while those Virginians were being eugenically sterilized, Virginia was not a pro-choice state.

Indeed, Senator Paul seems to inhabit such an irony-free world that he warned us about impending Gattaca without noticing that the Republican-controlled legislature in Virginia recently tried to force pregnant women seeking abortions to undergo an intra-vaginal ultrasound. That's something even the writers of Gattaca didn't think up.

When Rand Paul delivered that speech at Liberty Baptist, plagiarism was hardly the worst thing about it.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press, 2012)