Was Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger A Racist Eugenicist?

This is the new argument touted by anti-choice activists: Margaret Sanger was a racist and wanted to eliminate black people! The main reason that we are now facing a smear campaign against Sanger is that the undercover Planned Parenthood videos have shown absolutely zero wrongdoing and the Center for Medical Progress now has its tail firmly between its legs in apology, and is potentially facing criminal charges.

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Screenshot from video

So, they are trying to misquote and distort Sanger quotes in order to attempt to discredit Planned Parenthood in 2015, but of course there’s a problem with that: even if Sanger was the most horribly racist, pro-eugenics, hateful woman of her time, that has no bearing on Planned Parenthood today, and certainly has no bearing on whether the government should continue funding it.

The fact that Margaret Sanger used terms like “Negro” should not affect our view of PP today. Even if Sanger was racist (and, for the record, I don’t think she was), she could join the massive club of people with anti-black animus in the early 20th century. As a black legal analyst puts it:

“The United States is rooted in anti-Blackness. Anti-Blackness was built into the U.S. Constitution by this country’s Founding Fathers. Nearly every major corporation that exists today was either founded by racists, employed racists, built their business on anti-Blackness and slavery, or all of the above.”

So, now that we have gotten that out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?

Did Margaret Sanger Believe In Eugenics?

Short answer: probably, to some extent. It was the common medical way of thinking of the time, so it would make sense that she bought into it to a greater or lesser degree. Here is a quick summation of her views on eugenics:

“By all means, there should be no children when either mother or father suffers from such diseases as tuberculosis, gonorrhea, syphilis, cancer, epilepsy, insanity, drunkenness and mental disorders. In the case of the mother, heart disease, kidney trouble and pelvic deformities are also a serious bar to childbearing.” (“Woman and the New Race,” 1920, Chapter 7).

To our modern sensibilities, this may seem to be an extreme approach, but what we should realize is that it was well within the zeitgeist of her time. While she used terms like “eugenics” in her writing, she also makes it clear that she doesn’t wholly buy in:

“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.”  (Birth Control Review, 1919)

Illustration based on photos at a German concentration camp. for Polish children. Image by Christopher Dombres via flickr,
Illustration based on photos at a German concentration camp. for Polish children. Image by Christopher Dombres via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommerical license.

Were The Nazis Inspired By Sanger’s View Of Eugenics?

The answer here is clear: no. They disagreed with her view that a woman should be in control of her own body and reproduction, rather than the state. There is evidence that her books were among the first burned by the German Nazis, and that she possessed unambiguous anti-Nazi sentiments, helping Jews escape the Nazi regime.

Did Margaret Sanger Think That Black People Were Inferior To White People?

The answer here seems to be a hodge-podge, although I am personally inclined to believe that the answer leaned toward “no.” As with most thinkers of the time (and of the century or so previous), there was a real mixed bag in terms of her writings and quotes to do with black people.

Here’s what is true: she developed “The Negro Project” from 1939-1942, and established a Division of Negro Services in 1940. Again, this sounds like pretty rough stuff to our modern egalitarian sensibilities, but what we need to keep in mind is that this was during segregation, when black women lacked most of the health care resources that white women had. Sanger also noted that black women were less likely to trust white health care practitioners, so she focused on having black care workers in clinics in black areas.

As justification for her focus on providing birth control to black communities, she is often quoted as saying:

“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.”

This quote actually belongs to W. E. B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP. And, while it probably still should make our stomachs churn a little bit, we should realize that it was part of a larger discussion on race and reproduction to which we are not privy (unless we really immerse ourselves in the thought and the writings of the time; although, even then it would be nearly impossible to do away with our modern biases).

The most progressive quote on race from Sanger, in my opinion, comes from a newspaper interview from 1945. Sanger is quoted as saying:

“Discrimination is a world-wide thing. It has to be opposed everywhere. That is why I feel the Negro’s plight here is linked with that of the oppressed around the globe.

“The big answer, as I see it, is the education of the white man. The white man is the problem. It is the same as with the Nazis. We must change the white attitudes. That is where it lies.”

So, What Should We Make Of Margaret Sanger And Planned Parenthood?

Sanger has been criticized by black theorists as disregarding race and class in her discussions of feminism. Intersectionality has been a relatively new development in feminist theory, and many early suffragettes and feminists disregarded what we would consider to be an essential tenet of modern feminism.

This is no reason for excluding their writings from the feminist canon, but shows how important it is that feminism not take a binary approach when looking at its founders. We can accept some parts of Sanger’s writings and philosophies, while rejecting others. We can appreciate areas in which she accepted the common thinking of the time, and areas in which she rebelled against the current thinking in a progressive way. We shouldn’t try to make her into a saint, and whitewash the questionable parts of her legacy.

If any one of us had our writings posthumously dissected by groups with strong political agendas, they would likely find quotes that support their beliefs, and would easily be able to vilify us. History gets rewritten all the time by people with axes to grind, on both sides of an issue. It is usually best that we assume the truth is somewhere in the middle.

As for what conclusions you should draw about Planned Parenthood’s origins, dear reader, I will leave that up to you. Planned Parenthood has been maligned, smeared, and Cecile Richards has been raked across the coals in a session in Congress. In a discussion that has been long on rhetoric and short on facts, it’s important to maintain a focus on primary sources and a historical awareness.

Featured image by YouTube screen capture, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.