In response to the irresponsible and unethical attacks on Planned Parenthood on, of all things, the feminist blogosphere:
The Truth About Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger gained worldwide renown, respect, and admiration for founding the American birth control movement and, later, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as well as for developing and encouraging family planning efforts throughout the international community.
Among her many visionary accomplishments as a social reformer, Sanger established the principles that a woman’s right to control her body is the foundation of her human rights; that every person should be able to decide when or whether to have a child; that every child should be wanted and loved; and that women are entitled to sexual pleasure and fulfillment just as men are brought about the reversal of federal and state “Comstock laws” that prohibited publication and distribution of information about sex, sexuality, contraception, and human reproduction helped establish the contemporary American model for the protection of civil rights through nonviolent civil disobedience — a model that later propelled the civil rights, anti-war, women’s rights, and AIDS-action movements created access to birth control for low-income, minority, and immigrant women expanded the American concept of volunteerism and grassroots organizing by setting up a network of volunteer-driven family planning centers across the U.S.
Sanger also entertained some popular ideas of her own time that are out of keeping with our thinking today. Finding it easier to undermine her character than to confront the message she conveyed, the anti-family planning movement has seized upon some of these ideas, taken them out of context, and exaggerated and distorted them in order to discredit Sanger and the organization she founded.
Not content with exaggeration and distortion, anti-choice activists have also fabricated and attributed to Sanger points of view that she, in fact, found abhorrent. This fact sheet is designed to separate fact from fiction and to further explain Sanger’s views and the background against which they must be judged.
Sanger and Eugenics
Eugenics is the science of improving hereditary qualities by socially controlling human reproduction. Unable to foment popular opposition to Margaret Sanger’s accomplishments and the organization she founded, Sanger’s critics attempt to discredit them by intentionally confusing her views on “fitness” with eugenics, racism, and anti-Semitism. Margaret Sanger was not a racist, an anti-Semite, or a eugenicist. Eugenicists, like the Nazis, were opposed to the use of abortion and contraception by healthy and “fit” women (Grossmann, 1995). In fact, Sanger’s books were among the very first burned by the Nazis in their campaign against family planning (“Sanger on Exhibit,” 1999/2000). Sanger actually helped several Jewish women and men and others escape the Nazi regime in Germany (“Margaret Sanger and the ‘Refugee Department’,” 1993). Sanger’s disagreement with the eugenicists of her day is clear from her remarks in The Birth Control Review of February 1919:
Eugenists imply or insist that a woman’s first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state. We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother (1919a).
Margaret Sanger clearly identified with the issues of health and fitness that concerned the early 20th-century eugenics movement, which was enormously popular and well-respected during the 1920s and ’30s, when treatments for many hereditary and disabling conditions were unknown. However, Sanger always believed that reproductive decisions should be made on an individual and not a social or cultural basis, and she consistently repudiated any racial application of eugenics principles. For example, Sanger vocally opposed the racial stereotyping that effected passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, on the grounds that intelligence and other inherited traits vary by individual and not by group.
In 1927, the eugenics movement reached the height of its popularity when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, held that it was constitutional to involuntarily sterilize the developmentally disabled, the insane, or the uncontrollably epileptic. Oliver Wendell Holmes, supported by Louis Brandeis and six other justices, wrote the opinion.
Although Sanger uniformly repudiated the racist exploitation of eugenics principles, she agreed with the “progressives” of her day who favored incentives for the voluntary hospitalization and/or sterilization of people with untreatable, disabling, hereditary conditions the adoption and enforcement of stringent regulations to prevent the immigration of the diseased and “feebleminded” into the U.S. placing so-called illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and dope-fiends on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening and development of moral conduct. Planned Parenthood Federation of America finds these views objectionable and outmoded. Nevertheless, anti-family planning activists continue to attack Sanger, who has been dead for over 30 years, because she is an easier target than the unassailable reputation of PPFA and the contemporary family planning movement. However, attempts to discredit the family planning movement because its early 20th-century founder was not a perfect model of early 21st-century values is like disavowing the Declaration of Independence because its author, Thomas Jefferson, bought and sold slaves.
Sanger’s Outreach to the African-American Community
In 1930, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem that sought to enlist support for contraceptive use and to bring the benefits of family planning to women who were denied access to their city’s health and social services. Staffed by a black physician and black social worker, the clinic was endorsed by The Amsterdam News (the powerful local newspaper), the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Urban League, and the black community’s elder statesman, W.E.B. DuBois.
Beginning in 1939, DuBois also served on the advisory council for Sanger’s “Negro Project,” which was a “unique experiment in race-building and humanitarian service to a race subjected to discrimination, hardship, and segregation” (Chesler, 1992). The Negro Project served African-Americans in the rural South. Other leaders of the African-American community who were involved in the project included Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. The Negro Project was also endorsed by prominent white Americans who were involved in social justice efforts at this time, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the most visible and compassionate supporter of racial equality in her era; and the medical philanthropists, Albert and Mary Lasker, whose financial support made the project possible.
A passionate opponent of racism, Sanger predicted in 1942 that the “Negro question” would be foremost on the country’s domestic agenda after World War II. Her accomplishments on behalf of the African-American community were unchallengeable during her lifetime and remain so today. In 1966, the year Sanger died, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. . . . Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her.
Charges of racism against Sanger are most often made by anti-choice activists who are unfamiliar with the history of the African-American community or with Margaret Sanger’s collegial relationship with that community’s leaders. The tangled fabric of lies and manipulation woven by anti-choice activists around the issues of class, race, and family planning continues to be embroidered today, more than three-quarters of a century after the family planning movement began.
Published Statements That Distort or Misquote Margaret Sanger
Through the years, a number of alleged Sanger quotations, or allegations about her, have surfaced with regularity in anti-family planning publications. The following are samples of especially pernicious distortions, misattributions, or outright lies that Margaret Sanger’s enemies continue to circulate.
“More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue in birth control.”
A quotation falsely attributed to Margaret Sanger, this statement was made by the editors of American Medicine in a review of an article by Sanger. The editorial from which this appeared, as well as Sanger’s article, “Why Not Birth Control Clinics in America?” (1919b), were reprinted side-by-side in the May 1919 Birth Control Review.
“The mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.”
Another quotation falsely attributed to Margaret Sanger, this was actually written for the June 1932 issue of The Birth Control Review by W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Taken out of the context of his discussion about the effects of birth control on the balance between quality-of-life considerations and race-survival issues for African-Americans, Dubois’ language seems insensitive by today’s standards.
“Blacks, soldiers, and Jews are a menace to the race.”
This fabricated quotation, falsely attributed to Sanger, was concocted in the late 1980s. The alleged source is the April 1933 Birth Control Review (Sanger ceased editing the Review in 1929). That issue contains no article or letter by Sanger.
“To create a race of thoroughbreds . . .”
This remark, again attributed originally to Sanger, was made by Dr. Edward A. Kempf and has been cited out of context and with distorted meaning. Dr. Kempf, a progressive physician, was actually arguing for state endowment of maternal and infant care clinics. In her book The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger quoted Dr. Kempf’s argument about how environment may improve human excellence:
Society must make life worth the living and the refining for the individual by conditioning him to love and to seek the love-object in a manner that reflects a constructive effect upon his fellow-men and by giving him suitable opportunities. The virility of the automatic apparatus is destroyed by excessive gormandizing or hunger, by excessive wealth or poverty, by excessive work or idleness, by sexual abuse or intolerant prudishness. The noblest and most difficult art of all is the raising of human thoroughbreds (1969).
It was in this spirit that Sanger used the phrase, “Birth Control: To Create a Race of Thoroughbreds,” as a banner on the November 1921 issue of the Birth Control Review. (Differing slogans on the theme of voluntary family planning sometimes appeared under the title of The Review, e.g., “Dedicated to the Cause of Voluntary Motherhood,” January 1928.)
“The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”
This statement is taken out of context from Margaret Sanger’s Woman and the New Race (1920). Sanger was making an ironic comment — not a prescriptive one — about the horrifying rate of infant mortality among large families of early 20th-century urban America. The statement, as grim as the conditions that prompted Sanger to make it, accompanied this chart, illustrating the infant death rate in 1920:
Deaths During First Year
1st born children 23% 7th born children 31%
2nd born children 20% 8th born children 33%
3rd born children 21% 9th born children 35%
4th born children 23% 10th born children 41%
5th born children 26% 11th born children 51%
6th born children 31% 12th born children 60%
“We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”
Sanger was aware of African-American concerns, passionately argued by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, that birth control was a threat to the survival of the black race. This statement, which acknowledges those fears, is taken from a letter to Clarence J. Gamble, M.D., a champion of the birth control movement. In that letter, Sanger describes her strategy to allay such apprehensions. A larger portion of the letter makes Sanger’s meaning clear:
It seems to me from my experience . . . in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors, they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table. . . . They do not do this with the white people, and if we can train the Negro doctor at the clinic, he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching results. . . . His work, in my opinion, should be entirely with the Negro profession and the nurses, hospital, social workers, as well as the County’s white doctors. His success will depend upon his personality and his training by us.
The minister’s work is also important, and also he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation, as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs (1939).
“As early as 1914 Margaret Sanger was promoting abortion, not for white middle-class women, but against ‘inferior races’ — black people, poor people, Slavs, Latins, and Hebrews were ‘human weeds.'”
This allegation about Margaret Sanger appears in an anonymous flyer, “Facts About Planned Parenthood,” that is circulated by anti-family planning activists. Margaret Sanger, who passionately believed in a woman’s right to control her body, never “promoted” abortion because it was illegal and dangerous throughout her lifetime. She urged women to use contraceptives so that they would not be at risk for the dangers of illegal, back-alley abortion. Sanger never described any ethnic community as an ‘inferior race’ or as ‘human weeds.’ In her lifetime, Sanger won the respect of international figures of all races, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Mahatma Gandhi; Shidzue Kato, the foremost family planning advocate in Japan; and Lady Dhanvanthi Rama Rau of India — all of whom were sensitive to issues of race.
The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy
This is the title of a book falsely attributed to Sanger. It was written by Lothrop Stoddard and reviewed by Havelock Ellis in the October 1920 issue of The Birth Control Review. Its general topic, the international politics of race relations in the first decades of the century, is one in which Sanger was not involved. Her interest, insofar as she allowed a review of Stoddard’s book to be published in The Birth Control Review, was in the overall health and quality of life of all races and not in tensions between them. Ellis’s review was critical of the Stoddard book and of distinctions based on race or ethnicity alone.
For Further Reading
Chesler, Ellen. (1992). Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.
The Margaret Sanger Papers Project http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/index.html
Valenza, Charles. (1985) “Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?” Family Planning Perspectives, 17(1) (January/February), 44–46.
References and Additional Information
Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
Chesler, Ellen. (1992). Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.
DuBois, W.E.B. (1932). “Black Folk and Birth Control.” The Birth Control Review, 16(6), p. 166. Reprint: The Birth Control Review Vol. VIII, Vols. 16–17, 1932–July 1933. (1970). New York: Da Capo Press.
Ellis, Havelock. (1920). “The World’s Racial Problem.” The Birth Control Review, 4(10), 14–16. Reprint: The Birth Control Review Vol II, Vols. 4–5, 1920–1921. (1970). New York: Da Capo Press.
Grossmann, Atina. (1995). Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control & Abortion Reform 1920–1950. New York: Oxford University Press.
“Intelligent or Unintelligent Birth Control?: An Editorial from American Medicine.” (10.919). The Birth Control Review, 3(5), 12–13. Reprint: The Birth Control Review Vol. I, Vols. 1–3, 1917–1919. (1970). New York: Da Capo Press.
King, Martin Luther Jr. (1966, May 5). “Family Planning — A Special and Urgent Concern.” Acceptance speech upon receiving the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Margaret Sanger Award.
“Margaret Sanger and the ‘Refugee Department’.” (1993). Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter, 5 (Spring), 1–2.
“Sanger on Exhibit.” (1999/2000). Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter, 23 (Winter), p. 5.
Sanger, Margaret. (1919a). “Birth Control and Racial Betterment.” The Birth Control Review, 3(2), 11–12. Reprint: The Birth Control Review Vol. I, Vols. 1–3, 1917–1919. (1970). New York: Da Capo Press.
_____. (1919b). “Why Not Birth Control Clinics in America?” The Birth Control Review, 3(5), 10–11. Reprint: The Birth Control Review Vol. I, Vols. 1–3, 1917–1919. (1970). New York: Da Capo Press.
_____. (1920). Woman and the New Race. New York: Brentano’s, 62–63.
_____. (1939, Dec. 10). Personal communication to Clarence J. Gamble, M.D.
_____. (1942, July 9). Personal communication to A.D. Lasker.
_____. (1969). The Pivot of Civilization. Elmsford, NY: Maxwell Reprint Company, 144–145 courtesy of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc.
Those of you who have nothing better to do than attack the work of feminist leaders can count on it that I’ll be blogging what is true about them. Can you be bothered to do a simple google search on whomever it is you are attacking, to learn whether they have been similarly attacked in the past, and what they might have said? Do you have any journalistic ethics, at all?