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In a 1921 article in the Birth Control Review, Sanger wrote, "The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective." Reviewers of one of her 1919 articles interpreted her objectives as "More children from the fit, less from the unfit." Again, the question of who decides fitness is important, and it was an issue that Sanger only partly addressed. "The undeniably feebleminded should indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind," she wrote.
Sanger advocated the mandatory sterilization of the insane and feebleminded." Although this does not diminish her legacy as the key force in the birth control movement, it raises questions much like those now being raised about our nation's slaveholding founders. How do we judge historical figures? How are their contributions placed in context?
It is easy to see why there is some antipathy toward Sanger among people of color, considering that, given our nation's history, we are the people most frequently described as "unfit" and "feebleminded."
Many African American women have been subject to nonconsensual forced sterilization. Some did not even know that they were sterilized until they tried, unsuccessfully, to have children. In 1973, Essence Magazine published an expose of forced sterilization practices in the rural South, where racist physicians felt they were performing a service by sterilizing black women without telling them. While one cannot blame Margaret Sanger for the actions of these physician, one can certainly see why Sanger's words are especially repugnant in a racial context.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America has been protective of Margaret Sanger's reputation and defensive of allegations that she was a racist. They correctly point out that many of the attacks on Sanger come from anti-choice activists who have an interest in distorting both Sanger's work and that of Planned Parenthood. While it is understandable that Planned Parenthood would be protective of their founder's reputation, it cannot ignore the fact that Sanger edited the Birth Control review from its inception until 1929. Under her leadership, the magazine featured articles that embraced the eugenicist position. If Sanger were as anti-eugenics as Planned Parenthood says she was, she would not have printed as many articles sympathetic to eugenics as she did.
Like many modern feminists, Sanger ignored race and class
Would the NAACP's house organ, Crisis Magazine, print articles by members of the Ku Klux Klan? Would Planned Parenthood publish articles penned by fetal protectionist South Carolina republican Lindsey Graham?
The articled published in the Birth Control Review showed Sanger's empathy with some eugenicist views. Margaret Sanger worked closely with W. E. B. DuBois on her "Negro Project," an effort to expose Southern black women to birth control. Mary McLeod Bethune and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. were also involved in the effort. Much later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted an award from Planned Parenthood and complimented the organization's efforts. It is entirely possible that Sanger Ôs views evolved over time. Certainly, by the late 1940s, she spoke about ways to solve the "Negro problem" in the United States. This evolution, however commendable, does not eradicate the impact of her earlier statements.
What, then, is Sanger's legacy?
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America has grown to an organization with 129 affiliates. It operates 875 health centers and serves about 5 million women each year. Planned Parenthood has been a leader in the fight for women's right to choose and in providing access to affordable reproductive health care for a cross-section of women. Planned Parenthood has not supported forced sterilization or restricted immigration and has gently rejected the most extreme of Sanger's views.
In many ways, Sanger is no different from contemporary feminists who, after making the customary acknowledgement of issues dealing with race and class, return to analysis that focuses exclusively on gender. These are the feminists who feel that women should come together around "women's issues" and battle out our differences later. In failing to acknowledge differences and the differential impact of a set of policies, these feminists make it difficult for women to come together.
Sanger published the Birth Control Review at the same time that black men, returning from World War I, were lynched in uniform. That she did not see the harm in embracing exclusionary jargon about sterilization and immigration suggests that she was, at best, socially myopic.
That's reason enough to suggest that her leadership was flawed and her legacy crippled by her insensitivity.
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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.