At a March 1925 international birth control gathering in New York City, a speaker warned of the menace posed by the "black" and "yellow" peril. The man was not a Nazi or Klansman; he was Dr. S. Adolphus Knopf, a member of Margaret Sanger's American Birth Control League (ABCL), which along with other groups eventually became known as Planned Parenthood.
Sanger's other colleagues included avowed and sophisticated racists. One, Lothrop Stoddard, was a Harvard graduate and the author of The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy. Stoddard was something of a Nazi enthusiast who described the eugenic practices of the Third Reich as "scientific" and "humanitarian." And Dr. Harry Laughlin, another Sanger associate and board member for her group, spoke of purifying America's human "breeding stock" and purging America's "bad strains." These "strains" included the "shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of antisocial whites of the South."
Not to be outdone by her followers, Margaret Sanger spoke of sterilizing those she designated as "unfit," a plan she said would be the "salvation of American civilization.: And she also spike of those who were "irresponsible and reckless," among whom she included those " whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers." She further contended that "there is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped." That many Americans of African origin constituted a segment of Sanger considered "unfit" cannot be easily refuted.
While Planned Parenthood's current apologists try to place some distance between the eugenics and birth control movements, history definitively says otherwise. The eugenic theme figured prominently in the Birth Control Review, which Sanger founded in 1917. She published such articles as "Some Moral Aspects of Eugenics" (June 1920), "The Eugenic Conscience" (February 1921), "The purpose of Eugenics" (December 1924), "Birth Control and Positive Eugenics" (July 1925), "Birth Control: The True Eugenics" (August 1928), and many others.
These eugenic and racial origins are hardly what most people associate with the modern Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), which gave its Margaret Sanger award to the late Dr. Martin Luther King in 1966, and whose current president, Faye Wattleton, is black, a former nurse, and attractive.
Though once a social pariah group, routinely castigated by religious and government leaders, the PPFA is now an established, high-profile, well-funded organization with ample organizational and ideological support in high places of American society and government. Its statistics are accepted by major media and public health officials as "gospel"; its full-page ads appear in major newspapers; its spokespeople are called upon to give authoritative analyses of what America's family policies should be and to prescribe official answers that congressmen, state legislator and Supreme Court justiices all accept as "social orthodoxy."
Sanger's obsession with eugenics can be traced back to her own family. One of 11 children, she wrote in the autobiographical book, My Fight for Birth Control, that "I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, jails with large families." Just as important was the impression in her childhood of an inferior family status, exacerbated by the iconoclastic, "free-thinking" views of her father, whose "anti-Catholic attitudes did not make for his popularity" in a predominantly Irish community.
The fact that the wealthy families in her hometown of Corning, N.Y., had relatively few children, Sanger took as prima facie evidence of the impoverishing effect of larger families. The personal impact of this belief was heightened 1899, at the age of 48. Sanger was convinced that the "ordeals of motherhood" had caused the death of her mother. The lingering consumption (tuberculosis) that took her mother's life visited Sanger at the birth of her own first child on Nov. 18, 1905. The diagnosis forced her to seek refuge in the Adirondacks to strengthen her for the impending birth. Despite the precautions, the birth of baby Grant was "agonizing," the mere memory of which Sanger described as "mental torture" more than 25 years later. She once described the experience as a factor "to be reckoned with" in her zealous campaign for birth control.
From the beginning, Sanger advocacy of sex education reflected her interest in population control and birth prevention among the "unfit." Her first handbook, published for adolescents in 1915 and entitled, What Every Boy and Girl Should Know, featured a jarring afterword:
It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stoop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them.
To Sanger, the ebbing away of moral and religious codes over sexual conduct was a natural consequence of the worthlessness of such codes in the individual's search for self-fulfillment. "Instead of laying down hard and fast rules of sexual conduct," Sanger wrote in her 1922 book Pivot of Civilization, "sex can be rendered effective and valuable only as it meets and satisfies the interests and demands of the pupil himself." Her attitude is appropriately described as libertinism, but sex knowledge was not the same as individual liberty, as her writings on procreation emphasized.
The second edition of Sanger's life story, An Autobiography, appeared in 1938. There Sanger described her first cross-country lecture tour in 1916. Her standard speech asserted seven conditions of life that "mandated" the use of birth control: the third was "when parents, though normal, had subnormal children"; the fourth, "when husband and wife were adolescent"; the fifth, "when the earning capacity of the father was inadequate." No right existed to exercise sex knowledge to advance procreation. Sanger described the fact that "anyone, no matter how ignorant, how diseased mentally or physically, how lacking in all knowledge of children, seemed to consider he or she had the right to become a parent."
In the 1910's and 1920's, the entire social order--religion, law, politics, medicine, and the media--was arrayed against the idea and practice of birth control. This opposition began in 1873 when an overwhelmingly Protestant Congress passed, and a Protestant president signed into law, a bill that became known as the Comstock Law, named after its main proponent, Anthony Comstock. The U.S. Congress classified obscene writing, along with drugs, and devices and articles that prevented conception or caused abortion, under the same net of criminality and forbade their importation or mailing.
Sanger set out to have such legislation abolished or amended. Her initial efforts were directed at the Congress with the opening of a Washington, D.C., office of her American Birth Control League in 1926. Sanger wanted to amend section 211 of the U.S. criminal code to allow the interstate shipment and mailing of contraceptives among physicians, druggists and drug manufacturers.
LEARN was officially established in 1993 at the African American Pro-Life Planning Conference in Houston, Texas. One of the primary goals of LEARN is to facilitate a strong and viable network of African American and minority pro-life/pro-family advocates.
L.E.A.R.N. Northeast is part of the Life Education And Resource Network (LEARN), a national network of Christian pro-life/pro-family advocates who are dedicated to protecting the pre-born and promoting traditional family values.
This article first appeared in the January 20, 1992 edition of Citizen magazine and can be found on the LEARN website (link closed). Read the article on the Physicians for Life website. Reprinted with permission.