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Margaret Sanger, Then and Now

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To continue on the theme of late 19th/early 20th century sexuality and its implications for today, you all must read this absolutely outstanding Michelle Goldberg piece in The Nation on Margaret Sanger’s legacy. Sanger, the godmother of birth control in this country, was motivated to fight for legal contraception because of stories like this:

It was in 1912 in these ghettos that Sanger supposedly encountered Sadie Sachs, a Jewish immigrant who sparked her “awakening” to the necessity of birth control. In speeches and books, Sanger later described nursing Sachs, a 28-year-old mother of three, through the complications of a botched abortion. Sachs had begged the doctor who initially treated her for advice about preventing another pregnancy, saying, “Another baby will finish me.” The doctor’s response was callous: “You want your cake while you eat it too, do you? Well it can’t be done. I’ll tell you the only sure thing to do….Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.” Months later, Sanger returned to the apartment and found Sachs suffering from septicemia, the result of a self-induced abortion.

That slut-shaming doctor of 1912 would be right at home today in a Catholic bishopric or on the podium with Rick Santorum.

But rather than see Sanger as a hero, today she is often shunned because of her flirtation with eugenics. Anti-abortion activists use this to claim that Sanger then (and by proxy, Planned Parenthood today) wanted to commit genocide against black babies.

This issue of eugenics is complicated. From my perspective, the anti-abortion fanatics are hypocrites in who they pin blame for this movement upon. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt used to rave about race suicide and I don’t see modern Republicans selling TR down the river (though Glenn Beck is an exception because he hates the Progressive Era).

Goldberg does an admirable of teasing out the complexity of the eugenic movement, calling it elitist but not necessarily racist. Certainly eugenics was pretty awful, but Goldberg is right. It could be applied racially, but it was not inherently about getting brown people to stop have kids. It was about getting the “unfit” to stop having kids. That did often mean non-whites (applied much more broadly in 1912) but it is more complicated than that. This is an idea with no place in modern America or the world, but in 1912, elitist ideas about the poor were central to the entire Progressive Era. That’s not to apologize for Sanger’s embrace of eugenics, but to place it in proper historical context.

Moreover, Martin Luther King himself was an admirer of Sanger; as Goldberg states, King accepted Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger award in 1966. His speech, delivered by his wife Coretta Scott King noted, “striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.” In fact, Sanger worked heavily in African-American communities, providing contraceptive services to women who feared dying if they had another child. Among her supporters was the legendary African-American leader Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, who not only invited Sanger into his Abyssinian Baptist Church but openly endorsed birth control.

Right-wing doctors, social scolds, and conservatives have equated birth control with women escaping their rightful punishment for sex. Whether in 1912 or 2012, the attitude is that if the slut doesn’t want to have a kid, she should close her legs; moreover, if she does have sex, whether in marriage or outside marriage, she deserves whatever she gets. Of course, it doesn’t matter why a woman wants contraception: to prevent pregnancy in marriage, to allow her to explore her sexual side without worrying about destroying her life, to regulate her menstruation cycle, etc. None of this matters to the woman-haters who oppose access to contraception. There is no logical position to opposing contraception outside of punishing women. But that’s plenty good enough for too many people, past and present.

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