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Margaret Sanger, Eugenics, and Abortion

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Imani Gandy has a very useful run down of Margaret Sanger’s complicated racial, sexual, and medical politics, politics that the right are simplifying and lying about in order to attack Planned Parenthood as a scheme to eliminate black people through abortion. It’s long but allow me to just quote a couple of choice parts:

It is true that Sanger was a proponent of eugenics, and pro-choice advocates do themselves no favors by attempting to whitewash this fact and paint Sanger as some infallible feminist hero. Sanger was passionate about contraception—perhaps to a fault—and her fervor about promoting her birth control agenda led her to align herself with eugenicists, along with racists and an assortment of people of questionable character.

But it is simply untrue that Margaret Sanger wanted to exterminate the Black race. This is a flat-out lie. Yet it is one that is repeated ad nauseum, both by anti-choice activists and the politicians who support them, most recently Ben Carson.

In propagating this lie, anti-choicers infantilize Black women and strip them of their agency: They portray Margaret Sanger’s birth control agenda as something that was done to Black women, rather than something in which Black women and much of the Black community as a whole enthusiastically participated.

W. E. B. Du Bois, who was one of the first Black leaders to publicly support birth control and who worked closely with Sanger to advocate for it, even serving on the board of a clinic that Sanger opened up in Harlem, criticized the wider birth control movement because of its failure to address Black people’s needs as well.

It was this failure that gave birth to the sinister-sounding Negro Project.

Due to segregation policies in the South, the birth control clinics that opened in the 1930s were for white women only. Sanger wanted to change that. She sought to open clinics in the South staffed by Black doctors and nurses, and to educate Black women about contraception. In 1939, after she had been named honorary chairman of the board of Birth Control Federation of America (the precursor to Planned Parenthood), Sanger launched the Negro Project. The Federation’s Division of Negro Services, a national advisory council, which included prominent Black leaders like Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, E. Franklin Frazier, Walter White, and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, worked to manage the Negro Project.

The Negro Project had nothing to do with some nefarious plot to exterminate Black people or to “sterilize unknowing Black women,” as claimed by BlackGenocide.org—which is a widely read website seemingly dedicated to spreading false information about Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood. Rather, the Negro Project was a concerted effort by Sanger and Black community leaders to bring birth control to the South in a way that would assuage the deep-seated fears of Black birth control opponents like Marcus Garvey, who believed that the use of birth control in the Black community was tantamount to Black genocide.

….

Yes, she believed that the “reckless breeding” of the “feebleminded” was “the greatest biological menace to the future of civilization.” Yes, she believed that Americans were “paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever-increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.” Yes she believed that “morons” should be forcibly sterilized to ensure that they could not breed. She also believed that these “morons” could not be trusted to properly use birth control. Frankly, Sanger was far more ableist than she was racist.

But she was also a product of her time. The terms “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot” were all medical classifications back then. And eugenics—the theory that intelligence and other traits are genetically predetermined—was very popular at the turn of the century. The concern that “inferior stock” was reproducing at a faster rate than “superior stock,” was widespread. Inferior stock included anyone not viewed as a descendant of good breeding: Black people, immigrants, mentally and physically disabled people, the poor, criminals, and the “feebleminded.”

It may seem bizarre and Orwellian to us now, but that was the United States in which Sanger lived. And given the enthusiasm with which ordinary Americans embraced eugenics, it is no surprise that Sanger eventually joined up with them.

Sanger didn’t begin her campaign for birth control as a eugenicist, though. She started out as a relatively hardcore feminist. She believed that women had the right to sexual gratification and the right to choose when to become mothers.

“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” Those are Sanger’s own words.

But feminists at the time disapproved of Sanger’s insistence on women’s rights to sexual gratification. They largely believed that Sanger’s views were unchaste and immoral, and that a woman’s place was in the home, serving her husband and being virtuous. (Not unlike many anti-choicers today who believe that if you are unwilling to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, or as they like to call it “the consequences of sex,” then you should just abstain—forever, if necessary.)

In other words, all of this is extraordinarily complicated. Yes, there were black eugenicists. Yes, eugenics was widespread throughout basically all of American elite society during the early 20th century. Yes, that meant that scientific racism was popular and was shared by Sanger. No, it does not mean that Sanger was looking to exterminate the black race. No, it does not mean that Planned Parenthood is racist today. Yes, it means that history is really complex. No, it does not mean that conservatives will have any interest in telling the truth about this complexity.

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