As most know, Planned Parenthood is a controversial organization because their name is intimately connected with abortion, but a little less known is Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), defended by the organization as a “woman of heroic accomplishments,” is also a controversial subject.
In this article, we’ll be letting Margaret speak for herself by looking at two written works by the founder of Planned Parenthood: Women and the New Race (1920) and The Pivot of Civilization (1922).
The main ideas of both books are simple enough: Birth control is the key to ending the ills of society. Where contraception was a vastly more controversial subject in Sanger’s day, today the use of contraceptives, such as condoms or “the pill,” is widely accepted, and Sanger was certainly a driving force in this cultural change. Sanger’s basic stance is that making contraceptives available to families and cutting down on unplanned pregnancies would not only improve the life of individual families but of society as a whole.
Sanger’s bombastic, hyperbolic language in both works is often laughable, and the scope of the picture she paints of a utopian society all brought about simply by the availability of birth control is naive. For example, she writes birth control will end “Child slavery, prostitution, feeblemindedness, physical deterioration, hunger, oppression and war will disappear from the earth.” (WNR P.154) Despite her unrealistic expectations of birth control, Sanger’s basic thesis of family planning is hard to argue against.
But there is much more to Sanger’s beliefs that contributes to the controversy surrounding her legacy. It is no matter of debate that Sanger was a believer and promoter of eugenics, and she lays out her thoughts on the subject in the two works mentioned above.
WHAT IS EUGENICS?
Sanger explains in The Pivot of Civilization (PC): “Eugenics has been defined as ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either mentally or physically.” (PC Loc 1387) Unlike socialism, she writes, which tries to fix “the evil effects of our industrial and economic system,” “Eugenics is the attempt to solve the problem from the biological and evolutionary point of view.” (PC Loc 1391)
In Angela Franks’ book Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility (MSEL), Franks gives us more insight into eugenics: “Positive eugenics entailed encouraging the ‘fit’ to have more children and thus to perpetuate their good genes. Negative eugenics was concerned with limiting, either by persuasion or by force, the reproduction of the ‘unfit’ and thus halting the perpetuation of their genes within the human gene pool.” (MSEL Loc 570)
Sanger is a “negative” eugenist in that she sees birth control (including sterilization and abortion) as the means to a greater human race and a wholesale solution to all the ills of the world.
Franks continues, “Eugenicists designated as ‘unfit’ those they considered threats to the genetic integrity of humanity, including the poor, the physically disabled, the sickly, epileptics, alcoholics, those with impaired mental capacity, real or imagined (broadly designated the ‘feeble-minded,’ further distinguished as ‘idiots,’ ‘imbeciles,’ or ‘morons’) (MSEL Loc 572). Franks is correct to lump Sanger in with the type of eugenicist described above, as these terms are used regularly by Sanger in her books to describe those who should not reproduce, “the unfit” (as we’ll see below).
Chapter 18 of her book Women and the New Race is titled “The Goal,” which clearly explains the aim of eugenics: “[T]he creation of a new race… a greater race… evolutionary progress… a strong race” (WNR P.150-151). To be clear, when Sanger speaks of a new race or a better race, the context of her books clearly means a new or greater human race. Though many eugenicists were racists (the Nazis being the most notorious eugenicists of them all) eugenicists are not necessarily racist and not all eugenicists were. (Whether Sanger was a racist, perhaps we’ll explore in a later article.)
Sanger writes, “Birth Control which has been criticized as negative and destructive, is really the greatest and most truly eugenic method, and its adoption as part of the program of Eugenics would immediately give a concrete and realistic power to that science. As a matter of fact, Birth Control has been accepted by the most clear thinking and far seeing of the Eugenists themselves as the most constructive and necessary of the means to racial health.” (PC Loc 1532)
SANGER & EUGENICS: IN HER OWN WORDS
Now that we understand eugenics, I’ll leave my comments to a minimum and allow Sanger to speak for herself.
From Women and the New Race:
“Over one-fourth of all the immigrants over fourteen years of age, admitted during the two decades preceding 1910, were illiterate. Of the 8,398,000 who arrived in the 1900-1910 period, 2,238,000 could not read or write. There were 1,600,000 illiterate foreigners in the United States when the 1910 census was taken. Do these elements give promise of a better race? Are we doing anything genuinely constructive to overcome this situation?” (P.26)
“The most serious evil of our times is that of encouraging the bringing into the world of large families. The most immoral practice of the day is breeding too many children.” (P.40)
“The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” (P.44)*
(*Planned Parenthood has tried to write off the above comment by Sanger as her being ironic. I find no hint of irony in the context where the comment appears. Where I find no problem with encouraging (morally ethical) contraception to control unplanned pregnancy if one cannot provide for children, Sanger does not just condemn large families among the poor but also among the rich. In other words, the whole argument of this 5th chapter of Women and the New Race is that large families, whether poor or rich, are immoral, as is apparent by the title of the chapter: The Wickedness of Creating Large Families.)
“…Or we can accept the third, sane, sensible, moral and practicable plan of birth control. We can refuse to bring weak, the helpless and the unwanted children into the world.” (P.110)
“Birth control itself, often denounced as a violation of natural law, is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.” (P.151)
From The Pivot of Civilization:
“On the contrary, the most urgent problem to-day is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism.” (Loc 284)
“Surely it is an amazing and discouraging phenomenon that the very governments that have seen fit to interfere in practically every phase of the normal citizen’s life, dare not attempt to restrain, either by force or persuasion, the moron and the imbecile from producing his large family of feeble-minded offspring.” (Loc 838)
“The emergency problem of segregation and sterilization must be faced immediately. Every feeble-minded girl or woman of the hereditary type, especially of the moron class, should be segregated during the reproductive period. Otherwise, she is almost certain to bear imbecile children, who in turn are just as certain to breed other defectives.” (Loc 863)
“The result has been the accumulation of large urban populations, the increase of irresponsibility, and ever-widening margin of biological waste.” (Loc 1111)
“Mental defect and feeble-mindedness are conceived essentially as retardation, arrest of development, differing in degree so that the victim is either an idiot, an imbecile, feeble-minded or a moron, according to the relative period at which mental development ceases.” (Loc 1880)
“The statistics indicate at any rate a surprisingly low rate of intelligence among the classes in which large families and uncontrolled procreation predominate. Those of the lowest grade in intelligence are born of unskilled laborers (with the highest birth rate in the community); the next high among the skilled laborers, and so on to the families of professional people, among whom it is now admitted that the birth rate is voluntarily controlled.” (Loc 1941)
“Every single case of inherited defect, every malformed child, every congenitally tainted human being brought into this world is of infinite importance to that poor individual; but it is of scarcely less importance to the rest of us and to all of our children who must pay in one way or another for these biological and racial mistakes.” (Loc 2189)
“In passing, we should here recognize the difficulties presented by the idea of ‘fit’ and ‘unfit.’ Who is to decide this question? The grosser, the more obvious, the undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind.” (Loc 1473)
Sanger brings up a great point above: Who is to decide what people are fit or unfit to reproduce? Who designates the “racial mistakes” and “biological waste”? Who ought to hold the power to decide what person should “not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind”?
We can see by her own words Sander wasn’t just motivated by alleviating poverty or promoting women’s rights, but also by who should or shouldn’t be “breeding” according to her eugenic philosophy.
WNR = Women and the New Race, Margaret Sanger (Figgy Tree Publishers, 2016). Originally published in 1920.
PC = The Pivot of Civilization, Margaret Sanger (A Public Domain Book. Kindle Edition.) Originally published in 1922.
MSEL = Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility, Angela Franks (McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2005. Kindle Edition.)