Person

Margaret Sanger

Born:

1879 in Corning, New York

Died:

1966 in Tucson, Arizona

Occupation:

Birth Control Activist

Eugenics and Population Control Activist

Founder, Planned Parenthood

Founder, American Birth Control League

Editor, The Birth Control Review (1917-1929)

Political Party:

Socialist Party [112]

Margaret Sanger was a prominent advocate for contraception, eugenics, population control, and abortion best known for founding the American Birth Control League, the immediate predecessor of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA).

Sanger popularized the term “birth control” as central to her larger philosophy of Birth Control (later called “planned parenthood”), which hinged upon control of women’s reproduction and countering problems of global overpopulation. As an early advocate of Birth Control philosophy, she aligned herself closely with the cause of eugenicists in establishing “racial betterment” policies meant to improve the welfare of women and stop reproduction of people she deemed “unfit” to have children. [1] Sanger published much of her views of sexuality and birth control in Woman Rebel, a magazine she formed in 1914. [2]

A political radical, she was a member of the Socialist Party, which advocated for a government takeover of private property and the U.S. economy. [3]

Personal Life

Margaret Louise Higgins was born in Corning, New York, in 1879. Her parents, Michael and Anne Higgins, were Irish immigrants; her father served in the Union army as a drummer during the Civil War. According to Sanger, he ran away from “his home in Canada to enlist,” was told he was too young, and waited a year-and-a-half before joining the 12th New York Volunteer Cavalry at the age of 15. Michael Higgins was a craftsman who chiseled marble and granite for cemetery tombstones for a living. As such, Sanger grew up very poor. [4]

In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger described her father as a strong supporter of women’s suffrage “who believed in the equality of the sexes . . . [and] fought for free libraries, free education, free books in the public schools, and freedom of the mind from dogma and cant.” Michael Higgins was a socialist, according to Sanger, who required his children read the 1879 book Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy by Henry George, an economist popular with many early 20th century Progressives.[5] Both of Sanger’s parents were Roman Catholics, but Michael Higgins later became an atheist. He “took up Socialism because he believed it Christian philosophy put into practice,” Sanger wrote, adding that, “to me its ideals come nearest to carrying out what Christianity was supposed to do.” [6]

Higgins also had an avid interest in phrenology, the now-debunked pseudoscience of studying skull bumps and shapes to determine mental traits; phrenology is now considered by many to be a predecessor to eugenics, the study of “beautifying” humanity by controlling reproduction. According to Sanger, he studied under leading phrenologist Orson Fowler, whose 1843 book Hereditary Descent theorized that African-Americans had naturally poor verbal skills and coarse hair, lending them traits which made them suitable for nursing children and waiting on tables. [7] Sanger recorded of Higgins: [8]

Father believed implicitly that the head was the sculptured expression of the soul. Straight or slanting eyes, a ridge between them, a turned-up nose, full lips, bulges in front of or behind the ears—all these traits had definite meaning  for him. A research worker had to be inquisitive, a seeker with more than normal curiosity-bumps; a musician had to have order and time over the eyebrows; a pugilist [boxer] could not be made but had to have the proper protuberances around the ears.

One of [F]ather’s phrases was, “Nature is the perfect sculptor; she is never wrong. If you seem to have made a mistake in reading, it is because you have not read correctly.” He himself seldom made a mistake, and his reputation spread far and wide. Young men in confusion of mind and the customary puzzled, pre-graduation state came from Cornell and other colleges to consult him about their careers. He examined their heads and faces, told them where he thought their true vocations lay, and supplemented this advice later with voluminous interested correspondence. I could not help picking up his principles and some of his ardor, though I have never been able to analyze character so well [emphasis added].

In 1902, Margaret Higgins married William (originally Wilhelm) “Bill” Sanger, a German-born architect and artist who immigrated to the United States with his family in 1878. After changing her name, she went by Margaret Higgins Sanger. In 1906, the couple moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where William Sanger designed and built their house. [9] They had a rocky marriage ending in divorce.

Sanger later married J. Noah Slee, a Canadian entrepreneur and the first legal manufacturer of diaphragms in the United States. Slee was a board member of the American Birth Control League, the group Sanger formed to advocate for the legalization of contraception. [10]

Sanger lived long enough to see birth control legalized nationwide in the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut. She died in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona.

Political and Philosophical Views

Support for Radical Socialism

According to her biographer, David Kennedy, “Margaret Sanger’s radicalism grew from the profound sense of alienation from her environing culture which she had felt since childhood,” as well as a sense of frustration with convention inherited from her father, Michael Higgins. “The whole sickly business of society today is a sham,” she wrote in her journal in 1914.[11] Both Margaret and William Sanger were outspoken atheists whose views of religion were largely built upon their Marxist political beliefs. In 1914, she criticized “the vapid innocuities of religion” for drugging the working class into contentment, a position held by Karl Marx when he called religion “the opiate of the people” (“das Opium des Volkes“).[12] [13]

Sanger entered political activism during the birth of a new development in socialist politics, in which Marxists adopted Malthusian ideas advocating population control policies to “further the emancipation of women [and] also serve as a weapon in the class struggle.” [14] Margaret was personally acquainted with a number of leading American and European socialists and syndicalists, many of them revolutionary. William Sanger introduced his wife to leading radicals in New York, including 5-time Socialist Party of America presidential candidate Eugene Debs, a personal friend of his; John “Jack” Reed, a socialist activist who documented the 1917 Russian Revolution; Communist Party USA chairwoman and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) co-founder Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who died during a visit to the Soviet Union; communist Alexander Berkman; Industrial Workers of the World founder William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood; and anarchist Emma Goldman.[15] [16]

Both Margaret and William Sanger were members of the newly created Socialist Party of America, a now-defunct radical group formed in 1901 by a merger of two socialist parties. Later in life, Sanger wrote that she abandoned socialism as unhelpful in advancing her cause of choice: birth control. “Socialism, anarchism, syndicalism, progressivism [sic],” she wrote, “I was tired of them all.”[17] But in her younger years, Sanger drew many of her philosophical views from fellow socialists and anarchists. As she described it in her autobiography: “My own personal feelings drew me towards the individualist, anarchist philosophy . . . it seemed to me necessary to approach the ideal by way of Socialism . . . . Therefore, I joined the Socialist Party.”[18]

William Sanger in particular was an active party member who helped organize the Syndicalist League of North America, a revolutionary organization created by Marxist labor organizer William Z. Foster to “bore from within” the American Federation Labor (AFL) towards supporting syndicalism (a form of labor union-based socialism).[19] In 1911, William Sanger ran as a Socialist Party candidate for the New York City Board of Aldermen.[20] Margaret Sanger later wrote: [21]

Our living room became a gathering place where liberals, anarchists, Socialists, and I.W.W.’s [Industrial Workers of the World] could meet. These vehement individualists had to have an audience, preferably a small, intimate one. They really came to see Bill [William Sanger]; I made the cocoa. I used to listen in, not at all sure my opinions would be accepted by this very superior group. When I did meekly venture something, I was quite likely to find myself on the opposite side—right in a left crowd and vice versa.

She was reportedly encouraged by William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood, a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World and member of the executive committee of the Socialist Party of America, to travel to France in 1913 to “learn about contraception.” In Paris, the Sangers met Belgian labor organizer and writer for the far-left International Workers’ Association Victor Dave, the last surviving member of the Paris Commune (a revolutionary socialist government that ruled the city during a short-lived revolution from March to May 1871).[22] [23] It was during her time in France that Sanger developed her philosophy of Birth Control, according to the anarchist writer Hutchins Hapgood:[24]

I met Margaret Sanger some years later in Provincetown; a very pretty woman and at that time a friend of Emma Goldman and other anarchists, from whom she got her first ideas of birth control . . . . At that time, birth control was part of the whole revolutionary labor movement in France. And these ideas were later preached in America by the unpopular Anarchists, Emma Goldman et al. Margaret Sanger, being one of the converts here, received the inspiration. But this, as far as I knew, was not developed in her mind when I met her in Provincetown.

Sanger published a number of early articles on the human “sexual impulse” in The New York Call, one of three daily newspapers in the early 20th century affiliated with the Socialist Party of America.[25]

In May 1914, Sanger wrote an article in her magazine Woman Rebel criticizing American intervention in the Mexico’s civil war during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), alleging the Americans were “truly fighting in the interests of Hearst, Guggenheim and other magnates . . . [and] Rockefeller.” Sanger concluded with the rallying cry, “Hands off Mexico! Let the peons achieve their emancipation from chattel slavery! On with the Social Revolution!” [26] Conflict with the Mexican socialist guerrillas ultimately culminated in the Battle of Columbus, in which forces led by far-left revolutionary Pancho Villa raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing 15 civilians, and were driven back by U.S. Army forces.

“Philosophy of Birth Control”

While Margaret Sanger is often remembered as an early advocate for contraception, she  in fact connected controlled reproduction with a larger “philosophy of Birth Control,” which proposed a utopian vision of the future built upon population control policies: [27] [28]

Let us conceive for the moment at least, a world not burdened by the weight of dependent and delinquent classes, a total population of mature, intelligent, critical and expressive men and women. Instead of the inert, exploitable, mentally passive class which now forms the barren substratum of our civilization, try to imagine a population active, resistant, passing individual and social lives of the most contented and healthy sort. Would such men and women, liberated from our endless, unceasing struggle against mass prejudice and inertia, be deprived in any way of the stimulating zest of life? Would they sink into a slough of complacency and fatuity?

No! Life for them would be enriched, intensified and ennobled in a fashion it is difficult for us in our spiritual and physical squalor even to imagine. There would be a new renaissance of the arts and sciences. Awakened at last to the proximity of the treasures of life lying all about them, the children of that age would be inspired by a spirit of adventure and romance that would indeed produce a terrestrial paradise.

She conceived the term “birth control” (later “planned parenthood”) in January 1914 after considering suggestions by European population control advocates involving “limitation” and “family control,” which she rejected. “We tried population control, race control, and birth rate control,” she later wrote. “Then someone suggested ‘Drop the rate.’ Birth control was the answer; we knew we had it.” [29]

For Sanger, contraception was fundamentally connected to issues of “degeneracy, crime, and pauperism,” which she attributed to the so-called “feeble-minded” parts of the American population. The aim of Birth Control philosophy was “to create a race of well born children,” she wrote in 1922, in large part by elevating the “function of motherhood to a position of dignity.” Sanger was highly critical of efforts by the “Church and State” to encourage large families, blaming them for a growth in the number of children who are “diseased or feeble-minded” and often became criminals. Instead, she believed that the highest aim of Birth Control philosophy was to arrest the “threat of reckless procreation” and ensure that children are only “born of the mother’s conscious desire . . . under conditions which render possible the heritage of health.” [30]

Sanger discussed much of her Birth Control philosophy in The Birth Control Review, a magazine she edited and published from 1917 until 1928 (after which time it was edited by the American Birth Control League until 1940). In 1918, she opined that “every attempt woman has made to strike off the shackles of slavery has been met with the argument that such an act would result in the downfall of her morality.” [31]

We now know that there never can be a free humanity until woman is freed from ignorance, and we know, too, that woman can never call herself free until she is mistress of her own body. Just so long as man dictates and controls the standards of sex morality, just so long will man control the world. Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.

As such, she identified three distinct and “mutually exclusive policies by which civilization may hope to protect itself and the generations of the future from the allied dangers of imbecility, defect and delinquency.” [32] The first of these, philanthropy, Sanger criticized as “seldom, if ever, truly preventive” of allaying social ills and at worst, “sentimental and paternalistic.” The second, “Marxian Socialism,” she criticized as “too limited, too superficial[,] and too fragmentary” to fully solve social problems. The third, eugenics, she wrote “seems to me to be valuable in its critical and diagnostic aspects” of the “fit” and “unfit” in society; but unable to offer more than a “‘cradle competition’ between the fit and the unfit.” [33]

Towards the end of her life, Sanger said in a speech before a 1955 conference of the International Planned Parenthood Federation that “the future of civilization is, in all its phases, dependent upon Planned Parenthood” which “liberates the potential mother and wife from the despotic decrees of Father State—or Mother Church.” At the heart of the problem was overpopulation: [34]

We hear much discussion of aid to “backward” and underdeveloped areas. But we fail to see that these under-developed areas are always over-populated zones. How long can the American people be expected to pay confiscatory taxes to support these over-populated lands forever and ever?

Birth Control Activism

Sanger drew support for Birth Control philosophy from European examples, including family planning clinics established in the Netherlands during World War I. Sanger visited a number of such clinics and the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, gathering that “from a eugenic standpoint there had been a rapid increase in the stature of the Dutch conscript as shown by army records” thanks to the clinics. This “proved conclusively that a controlled birth rate was as beneficial as I had imagined it might be.” [35] She also praised Germany as an example of a technologically advanced country which “could hold no more [people]” and had to take measures to either curb population growth or expand its colonial conquests: [36]

I was convinced the primary cause of this war [World War I] lay in the terrific pressure of population in Germany. To be sure, her birth rate had recently begun to decline, but her death rate, particularly infant mortality, had, through applied medical science, likewise been brought far down. The German Government had to do something about the increase of her people. Underneath her rampant militarism, underneath her demand for more colonies was this driving economic force. She could hold no more, and had to burst her bounds.

After the war, she traveled to Germany to “investigate the decline in the birth rate.” In Munich, she attended a meeting of the Communist Party, where she met the wife of German communist revolutionary Erich Mühsam, one of the founders of the short-lived Red Bavaria Revolution. [37] She later traveled to Japan, Korea, and China to examine living conditions, concluding that: [38]

Of all lands China needed knowledge of how to control her numbers; the incessant fertility of her millions spread like a plague. Well-wishing foreigners who had gone there with their own moral codes to save her babies from infanticide, her people from pestilence, had actually increased her problem. To contribute to famine funds and the support of [Christian] missions was like trying to sweep back the sea with a broom.

China represented the final act in an international tragedy of overpopulation, seeming to prove that the eminence of a country could not be measured by numbers any more than industrial expansion, large standing armies, or invincible navies. If its sons and daughters left for the generations to come a record of immortal poetry, art, and philosophy, then it was a great nation and had attained the only immortality worth striving for. But China, the fountainhead of wisdom, had been brought to the dust by superabundant breeding.

Trip to the Soviet Union (1934)

In 1934, Sanger journeyed to the Soviet Union to inspect communist Russia in a six-week tour led by American communist Sherwood Eddy and closely guided by the Soviet state. “Russia today is the country of the liberated woman,” she remarked. “The attitude of Soviet Russia towards its women . . . would delight the heart of the staunchest feminist.” Nevertheless, she criticized the Soviet Union’s support for abortions, arguing that the country should adopt birth control instead of abortion as an effective measure to combat overpopulation. [39]

“At Leningrad,” she wrote of St. Petersburg, “we were met by buses and driven through streets that swarmed with imperturbable, peasant-like people. The upper parts of their Mongolian-shaped heads all looked exactly the same.” [40] She noted that the “Communists’ apartments were much better, lighter, airier, cleaner, more modern than those for non-party members.” In Russia, she met one Dr. Reinhold, an American dentist in the employ of Joseph Stalin. According to Sanger, the answer for every question about what the Soviets taught in school was “Marx,” be the subject engineering or mathematics. [41]

Upon visiting the Soviets’ Institute for the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood, she observed glowingly that “the Government was exerting itself strenuously to teach the rudiments of hygiene to an enormous population that had previously known nothing of it.” [42]

Russia was also aiming to free women from the two bonds that enslaved them most—the nursery and the kitchen. . . . Children were the priceless possessions of [Soviet] Russia. Their time was planned for them from birth to the age of sixteen, when they were paid to go to college, if they so desired. No longer were they a drain or burden to their families. Not only were teachers or parents forbidden to inflict corporal punishment, but children might even report their parents for being vindictive, ill-humored, disorderly, and in many cases they did so.

. . .

Furthermore, Russia was investing in future generations by building a healthy race. If there were any scarcity of milk the children were supplied first, the hospitals second, members of the Communist Party third, industrial groups fourth, professional classes fifth, and old people over fifty had to scrape along on what they could get, unless they were parents of Communists or closely associated with them.

Upon returning to the United States, Sanger said: “The right of women to birth control is clear. And this right need not be bulwarked, as in our country by health reasons, economic reasons, eugenic reasons, but is granted as a simple human right.” [43]

Woman Rebel

Margaret Sanger published much of her views of sexuality and birth control in Woman Rebel, a magazine she formed in 1914 and which coincided with the beginning of her Birth Control activism.[44] According to her autobiography, Sanger conceived of the magazine aboard a ship during her return voyage from Europe to the United States in January 1914. It was to be “dedicated to the interests of working women,” she wrote. [45] Funding for the project came from advance subscriptions purchased by “Socialists and trade unionists”; contemporary feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, rejected Sanger’s requests to buy subscriptions to Woman Rebel. According to Sanger, her father, Michael Higgins, also “expressed his hatred of it.” [46]

The first issue of Woman Rebel was released in March 1914 with the declaration, “No Gods, No Masters.” Sanger chose the statement because “she wanted to go beyond religion and also stop turning idols, heroes, [and] leaders into gods.” [47] The magazine’s content, which included topics such as abortion, brought it into conflict with the Comstock Act of 1873, a federal law which criminalized the use of the U.S. Postal Service or common carrier to send “obscene” content. In 1915, Sanger was charged with violating the Comstock Act for circulating “obscene” content in Woman Rebel. Her conviction was later reversed. [48]

International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conferences

In 1915-1916, Sanger began a series of lectures in which she advocated for contraception in the cases of newly-weds, venereal disease, “insanity,” “when the earning capacity of the father was inadequate,” among others. She also proposed a federal “bureau of application for the unborn” in which the eligibility of married couples would be considered for parenthood. “But anyone,” she later wrote, “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.” [49]

From 1917 to 1921, Sanger edited a successor magazine to Woman Rebel titled Birth Control Review. Upon returning to the United States from another European trip in 1920, she founded two birth control clinics. This eventually led her to plan the First National Birth Control Conference in November 1921 in New York City. [50] These conferences were also attended by members of the Neo-Malthusian League, a population control group; later conferences were referred to as the International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conferences. British economist John Maynard Keynes also attended the conferences. [51]

In 1923, Sanger was invited to speak about birth control before the woman’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey, which she later described as “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.” [52]

American Birth Control League

Sanger co-founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 to advocate for the legalization of contraception in the United States. Over the course of its existence, the League held seven conferences across the country and lobbied for four bills in the New York and Pennsylvania state legislatures, respectively. [53]

Co-founders of the League included “French eugenist” Georges Lapouge, a pioneer of Aryan supremacy theory; Heywood Broun, a socialist journalist and founder of the Newspaper Guild; Thit Jensen, a Danish erotic novelist and women’s rights advocate; Ferdinand Goldstein, a German abortion advocate who reportedly left the group for its refusal to endorse abortion in its founding program; Johann Ferch, an Austrian novelist and anti-Semite; Aletta Jacobs, a Dutch physician and women’s rights advocate; and Clarence C. Little, president of the American Eugenics Society. Little was chosen to be the group’s founding president. [54]

Notable board members for the League included Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of 1920 Democratic nominee for Vice President (and future U.S. President) Franklin Roosevelt; the eugenicists Clarence Cook “C.C.” Little and Theodore Lothrop Stoddard; ex-eugenicist Raymond Pearl, a member of the advisory committee of the World Population Conference and founder of the early population control movement; Juliet Barret Rublee, a birth control advocate, heir to the Barrett roofing supply fortune, and one of Sanger’s biggest financial backers; Jessie “Frances” Ackermann, a World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union missionary; the actress Katherine “Kate” Hepburn; and William H. Garth, a Canadian Episcopalian minister. [55] A full list of the League’s board members and officers is below: [56]

  • Margaret Sanger, President
  • Catherine Clement Bangs, President
  • Eleanor Dwight Jones, Board Member and President
  • May Billings, Vice President
  • Juliet Barrett Rublee, Vice President
  • Frances B. Ackermann, Treasurer
  • J. Noah Slee, Treasurer
  • Mabel Whitney Blagden, Board Member and Vice President
  • George H. Bradford, Board Member
  • Helen Graham Fairbank Carpenter, Board Member and Vice President
  • Katherine Seymour Day, Board Member
  • Martha Binney Dunning, Board Member
  • William H. Garth, Board Member
  • Katherine H. Hepburn, Board Member
  • Anne Kennedy, Board Member
  • Clarence C. Little, Board Member and Advisory Board Member
  • Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, Board Member
  • Adolf Meyer, Advisory Board Member
  • Stuart Mudd, Board Member
  • Raymond Pearl, Advisory Board Member
  • Annie Webb Porritt, Board Member
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, Board Member
  • John B. Solley, Jr., Advisory Board Member
  • Benjamin T. Tilton, Board Member and Advisory Board Member
  • Ida Haar Timme, Board Member
  • John Colin Vaughan, Board Member and Advisory Board Member

In June 1928, Sanger resigned from the League to assume full control of the Clinical Research Bureau, the first legal birth control clinic in the country. According to the liberal magazine The Nation, she did so to protest “the eugenics leanings of some of its leaders”; historians at New York University, however, have suggested that she left the League “over administrative differences with Acting President Eleanor Dwight Jones, a desire to concentrate on birth control research and clinical service at the CRB, and her increased interest in international work.” [57] [58]

Founding of Planned Parenthood

For more information, see Planned Parenthood Federation of America (Nonprofit)

In 1939, the American Birth Control League and Sanger’s Clinical Research Bureau merged to form the Birth Control Federation of America. In 1942, the Federation was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.[59] With the name change came a moderate shift away from family limitation towards broader reproductive health issues targeting support among Americans after World War II. Sanger herself objected to the name change, claiming it was “too euphemistic” and preferring her original term, birth control. [60]

In 1948, Sanger helped found the International Committee on Planned Parenthood, the first international birth control organization; it was replaced by the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 at a birth control conference held in Bombay, India. At its founding in 1952, the International Planned Parenthood Federation was headquartered in the British Eugenics Society. [61]

Support for Eugenics and Population Control

“Eugenics” (from Greek, meaning “good stock” or “well-born”) refers to the set of practices aimed at improving the genetic quality of humanity by barring those groups deemed genetically inferior and “undesirable” from reproducing. The term was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, a British natural scientist who drew upon the theories of his half-cousin and friend, Charles Darwin. [62] [63]

Sanger wed her support for contraception with the American eugenics movement of the early 20th century, arguing that population control was central to effective birth control policies. “Eugenics seems to me to be valuable in its critical and diagnostic aspects, in emphasizing the danger of irresponsible and uncontrolled fertility of the “unfit” and the feeble-minded establishing a progressive unbalance in human society and lowering the birth-rate among the ‘fit,'” she wrote in 1922. [64] She wrote in the New York Times in 1923: [65]

Birth control is not contraception indiscriminately and thoughtlessly practiced. It means the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination, and eventual extirpation of defective stocks—those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.

Sanger connected the liberation of women with the development of a “cleaner race” through eugenics. In 1918, she wrote in The Birth Control Review that “knowledge of birth control is essentially moral. Its general, though prudent, practice must lead to a higher individuality and ultimately to a cleaner race.” [66] In a 1919 article entitled “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” she wrote that adoption of her Birth Control philosophy is a fundamental step “before eugenists and others who are laboring for racial betterment can succeed,” noting that both “eugenists” and “the advocates of Birth Control . . . are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unit. Both are seeking a single end but they lay emphasis upon different methods.” [67]

The point of different between eugenics and Birth Control, Sanger argued, lay in the economic consequences of reproduction. Eugenicists were solely interested in “the mating of healthy couples for the conscious purpose of producing healthy children” and “sterilization of the unfit.” Birth Control advocates, however, went further, demand an end to “all reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health.” “We hold that the world is already over-populated,” Sanger concluded, while eugenicists saw further need for reproduction. Still, she aligned herself with the broader goal of eugenics (population control), adding that “Birth Control . . . not only opens the way to the eugenist, but it preserves his work.” [68]

Sanger went further in aligning the two causes in a 1921 article entitled “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda,” in which she argued that “the campaign for Birth Control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical in ideal, with the final aims of Eugenics.”[69] She was a member in attendance to the Third International Congress of Eugenics held in 1932 and a member of the American Eugenics Society in 1956. [70] In her autobiography, Sanger wrote that “I accepted one branch of this philosophy [eugenics], but eugenics without birth control seemed to me a house build upon sands.” [71]

In 1925, Sanger urged President Calvin Coolidge to form a “Federal Birth Control Commission” to “be given free access to all facts and statistics relative to the racial health of this nation.” The appeal, she added, was “ignored.” Nevertheless, in 1935 Sanger lobbied the Roosevelt administration to organize a “Federal Population Bureau . . . [to be] scientifically equipped and empowered to diagnose the population problems confronting the Nation today, with the aim of formulating a Federal Population policy.”[72]

Eugenicist Havelock Ellis was personally close to Sanger, each writing frequent letters to the other, and the two even allegedly had an affair. [73] She wrote in her autobiography than “I have never felt about any other person as I do about Havelock Ellis. To know him has been a bounteous privilege; to claim him my friend my greatest honor.”[74] Sanger reviewed a 1928 biography of Ellis in which she wrote, “those of us who find in Ellis a god can never be quite satisfied with a realistic portrait, which, from a distance, slightly diminishes his true stature.”[75] Another League supporter was French anthropologist Georges Vacher de Lapouge, founder of anthroposociology (which purported to scientifically establish the superiority of certain racial groups) and an advocate for Aryan supremacy.[76]

Eugenics in the American Birth Control League & Planned Parenthood

Both Planned Parenthood and its predecessor, the American Birth Control League, were closely connected to the eugenics movement in the U.S. and Europe.

At its founding in 1952, the International Planned Parenthood Federation was headquartered in the British Eugenics Society. [77] As president of the American Birth Control League, Sanger aligned herself with the Malthusian League, a British society that advocated for contraception as a solution to “overpopulation and poverty.” [78] In line with Sanger’s “philosophy of Birth Control,” the American Birth Control League included among its founding aims the “STERILIZATION of the insane and feeble-minded and the encouragement of this operation upon those afflicted with inherited or transmissible diseases, with the understanding that sterilization does not deprive the individual of his or her sex expression, but merely renders him incapable of producing children.” [79]

The American Birth Control League received support from many supporters of eugenics. The group’s founding board, for instance, included Lothrop Stoddard and Clarence C. Little. [80] Stoddard, a member of the American Eugenics Society, was an avowed white supremacist who argued for the creation of a racial hierarchy through anti-miscegenation laws in his 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. Stoddard’s 1922 book The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-men also lent the racial term “untermensch” (“sub-human”) to Nazi racial theory, from its German translation of “under-men” to Untermenschen. [81] Clarence Cook “C.C.” Little was president of the American Eugenics Society. [82] British writer H.G. Wells, whose political views were supportive of eugenics, authored the introduction to Sanger’s 1922 book The Pivot of Civilization; Wells and Sanger also purportedly carried on an affair. [83] [84] At the group’s 1940 convention, former American Eugenics Society president Henry Pratt Fairchild told members: [85]

One of the outstanding features of the present conference is the practically universal acceptance of the fact that these two great movements [eugenics and birth control] have now come to such a thorough understanding and have drawn so close together as to be be almost indistinguishable.

While eugenicists supported the American Birth Control League, the organization also actively aligned itself with eugenics advocates. Guy Irving Burch, a population control advocate who wrote that “freedom from war requires population limitation,” was the founder of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. [86] In 1952, he received a posthumous award from Planned Parenthood (the League’s successor), which acclaimed that “perhaps more than any other individual he was responsible for today’s awareness of the population problem and the need for positive action to resolve it.” [87]

Reproduction of the “Feeble-minded”

Sanger was critical of Americans she called “feeble-minded.” In her 1922 book The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger divided Americans into two classes, those “fit” to reproduce and those “unfit” to do so: [88]

The lack of balance between the birth-rate of the “unfit” and the “fit,” admittedly the greatest present menace to the civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. The example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit, and therefore less fertile, parents of the educated and well-to-do classes. On the contrary, the most urgent problem to-day is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism.

In a chapter of the book entitled “The Fertility of the Feeble-Minded,” Sanger identified “but one practical and feasible program in handling the great problem of the feeble-minded”: that is, “prevent[ing] the birth of those who would transmit imbecility to their descendants.” To this end, she leaned on research by American biologist Charles Davenport (a successor to Francis Galton), who founded the Eugenics Record Office, a population control research laboratory, on Long Island, New York in 1904. Sanger quoted Davenport in The Pivot of Civilization in support of policies restricting reproduction of the “feeble-minded”: [89]

Modern conditions of civilization, as we are continually being reminded, furnish the most favorable breeding-ground for the mental defective, the moron, the imbecile. “We protect the members of a weak strain,” says Davenport, “up to the period of reproduction, and then let them free upon the community, and encourage them to leave a large progeny of `feeble-minded’: which in turn, protected from mortality and carefully nurtured up to the reproductive period, are again set free to reproduce, and so the stupid work goes on of preserving and increasing our socially unfit strains.”

Immigration and Forced Sterilization

Margaret Sanger’s views of eugenics and “race betterment” were also central to her views of immigration. In her 1938 autobiography, she wrote: [90]

In the United States, numerically speaking, overpopulation was not of apparent importance; we still had unoccupied lands. But evidence that we were beginning to consider the quality of our citizens as well as the quantity was shown in our immigration laws. In 1907 we barred aliens with mental, physical, communicable, or loathsome diseases, and also illiterate paupers, prostitutes, and the feeble-minded. Had these precautions been taken earlier our institutions would not now be crowded with moronic mothers, daughters, and grand-daughters—three generations at a time, all of whom have to be supported by tax-payers who shut their eyes to this condition, admittedly detrimental to the blood stream of the race [emphasis added.

To that end, Sanger advocated for the League of Nations proposed after World War I to “include birth control in its program and proclaim that increase in numbers was not to be regarded as a justifiable reason for national expansion, but that each nation should limit its inhabitants to its resources as a fundamental principle of international peace. [91]

Writing in 1926 in The Birth Control Review, Sanger voiced support for “race betterment,” a common name for eugenics in the U.S., as a critical criterion in determining American immigration policy: [92]

The Question of race betterment is one of immediate concern, and I am glad to say that the United States Government has already taken certain steps to control the quality of our population through the drastic immigration laws. . . . But while we close our gates to the co-called “undesirables” from other countries, we make no attempt to discourage or cut down the rapid multiplication of the unfit and undesirable at home.

. . .

In fact through our archaic and inhuman laws against Birth Control information the breeding of defectives and insane becomes a necessity. . . . The American public is taxed, heavily taxed, to maintain an increasing race of morons, which threatens the very foundations of our civilization.

In 1932, Sanger argued for “keeping the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feeble-minded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.” [93]

Defenses of Sanger’s Support for Eugenics

Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenics and criticism of the “unfit” has been defended by her supporters. Planned Parenthood‘s assessment of Sanger calls the eugenics advocate a “a woman of heroic accomplishments [who] had some beliefs, practices, and associations that we acknowledge, denounce, and work to rectify today.” The group asserts that “eugenics was embraced across the political spectrum, from conservatives to socialists,” without recognizing that eugenics was largely embraced by the Progressives of the early 20th century. Planned Parenthood defends Sanger’s views of the “fit” and “unfit” as applying solely to individuals’ mental or physical defects, quoting Sanger as writing, “if ‘unfit’ refers to races or religions, then that is another matter, which I frankly deplore.” [94]

That particular quotation, which has been widely used a defense of Sanger’s view of eugenics, comes from a letter written in February 1934 by Sanger to Sidney L. Lasell Jr., a Yale University freshman who sent her a questionnaire to be published in the student-run paper Yale News, in which Lasell Jr. asked Sanger, “What are your views on the German program of sterilizing the unfit?” [95] Sanger’s reply to Lasell Jr. in full was: [96]

Q: What are your views on the German program of sterilizing the unfit?

A: My views on the German program of sterilizing the unfit: I admire the courage of a government that takes a stand on sterilization of the unfit and second, my admiration is subject to the interpretation of the word “unfit.” If by “unfit” is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, that is an admirable gesture, but if “unfit” refers to races or religions, then that is another matter which I frankly deplore.

Lasell Jr. was likely referring to the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring (German: Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) enacted on July 14, 1933 and brought into effect in January 1934. The law was passed just eight months after the November 1932 German election, in which the National Socialist German Workers Party (German: Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, abbr. NSDAP) or Nazi Party obtained a plurality in the German Reichstag (parliament), and six months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, making it one of the first statues passed by the Nazi regime. The law established “Genetic Health Courts” consisting of a judge and medical practitioners which had the power to perform forced sterilizations of individuals suffering from a range of hereditary diseases and “deficiencies.” In the first year of the law’s operation, some 62,400 forced sterilizations were performed; by 1945, the number of people forcibly sterilized reached 400,000. [97]

The sterilization law was structured on a model created by American eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office (1910-1939), co-founder of the American Eugenics Society, and an advocate for compulsory sterilization. [98] [99]

Sanger and Laughlin were close allies. At a 1923 Birth Control conference in Chicago, she told him that she believed “this conference is going to do much to unite the Eugenic Movement and the Birth Control movement, for after all they should be and are the right and left hand of one body.” [100]

Compulsory sterilization was a “hotly debated” topic among American eugenicists in 1934, sparking support from legislators in Great Britain, Sweden, and Poland. However, on February 7, 1934, Sanger issued a press release outlining the American Birth Control League’s position on sterilization [emphases added]:[101]

Washington, D.C.
February 7, 1934

The question of sterilization is one which should demand immediate public attention. There should be a greater understanding of what it means and how it is done.

There is a general impression that sterilization deprives the individual of his or her sex functions. This is untrue. Neither method of sterilization—X-ray or surgery in any way interferes with the normal sex activities of the individual. It simply renders the individual incapable of producing offspring.

To the average normal responsible parent, birth control is a necessity—especially in the spacing of children, or in limiting the size of the family in consideration of the mother’s health and the father’s earnings. But there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of individuals in this country who have not the moral responsibility to care for children, nor to realize the seriousness of irresponsible child-bearing. These people should be sterilized. They can be classed as the moron, the mental defective, feebleminded, certain forms of insanity—where the cure is doubtful or uncertain, besides those afflicted with epilepsy and other transmissible diseases.

Sterilization should not be considered a punishment. In order to facilitate and to reach those irresponsible persons who should be sterilized, I would suggest that the U.S. Government pay a yearly pension to all paupers, morons, feebleminded, mentally and morally deficient persons, who will submit to sterilization. The Government could far better afford to pension these members of society for doing a constructive thing than to pass them out a dole while they increase their numbers tenfold [emphasis added].

MARGARET SANGER

“The Negro Project of the South”

In 1939, the Birth Control Federation of America—created from a merger of the American Birth Control League with the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and the direct predecessor to Planned Parenthood—embarked on what it called the “Negro Project of the South.” The intent of the project was evidently to spread “planned parenthood” techniques to the black population in the American South with the aim of reducing unplanned pregnancies; critics have argued that the project’s supporters also intended it to reduce the overall black population by decreasing births.

Sanger initially sought funding for the project from Albert Lasker, a German-born advertising executive and medical research philanthropist through the Albert & Mary Lasker Foundation; it’s unclear how much money she received from Lasker. [102] The project was supported by a number of African American leaders of the time, all on the political Left, including W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and future U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (D-NY). [103]

The Project, which was intended to be administered by African Americans, targeted poor blacks in the South. Sanger sent out workers to the rural South to test various contraceptive jellies and other low-cost forms of contraception to reduce the birth rates of blacks, believing that poor Southern blacks drained resources away from the rest of the country. Ultimately, it proved a failure, with few women showing up for follow-up exams, and the project was terminated in 1942. [104]

Controversy over Sanger’s Views of Non-Whites

Writing in Sanger’s defense, Planned Parenthood’s biography notes that the word “Negro” was “a pejorative sounding name to the contemporary mind but a commonly used term at the time.” The group paints Sanger’s Negro Project as an effort to “help African Americans gain better access to safe contraception and maintain birth control services” that nevertheless went terribly awry, with Sanger “losing control of it.” [105]

In the end, the Negro Project was carried out in ways that were basically indifferent to the needs of the community and smacked of racism, devolving to something like the paternalistic “sexual hygiene” caravans of white clinicians that occasionally swept through the region. Sanger was deeply stung by the course of these events.

Sanger’s position on the Negro Project is also referenced by defenders when she wrote: “To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation.” [106]

However, in a December 10, 1939 letter to Clarence “C.J.” Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble soap business fortune and a eugenics proponent (as well as founder of Pathfinder International, a major population control funder), Sanger discusses her concerns that “the Negro Project of the South” would be misconstrued as an effort to eradicate African Americans: [107]

The ministers [sic] work is also important and also he should be trained, perhaps by the [Birth Control Federation of America,] as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members [emphasis added].

Sanger’s arguably racist and paternalistic view of non-European ethnic groups appears in a 1912 article entitled “What Every Girl Should Know”: [108]

It is said a fish as large as a man has a brain no larger than the kernel of an almond. In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets. According to one writer, the rapist has just enough brain development to raise him above the animal, but like the animal, when in heat knows no law except nature which impels him to procreate whatever the result [emphasis added].

Legacy and Controversies

Margaret Sanger Award

Sanger is honored as the namesake of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award, which is presented annually “to recognize leadership, excellence, and outstanding contributions to the reproductive health and rights movement.” Past award recipients include: [109]

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), 2014
  • Jane Fonda, 2003
  • Alan F. Guttmacher, 1972
  • John D. Rockefeller III, 1967
  • Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1966
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966

In 2015, a group of black pastors and the pro-life group ForAmerica called for a bust of Sanger to be removed from the National Portrait Gallery, a public museum in Washington, D.C., on the grounds that Sanger should not be honored since she advocated for eugenics and sterilization of “inferior” people. In a letter to the Gallery, the group wrote, “Perhaps your institution is a victim of propaganda advanced by those who support abortion. Nevertheless, a prestigious institution like the National Portrait Gallery should have higher standards and subject its honorees to higher scrutiny.” [110]

The pastors and activists were supported by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who called the bust “an affront both to basic human decency and the very meaning of justice” in a publicly circulated letter to other members of Congress. The Gallery ultimately refused to remove Sanger’s bust, with a spokeswoman saying the exhibit didn’t ignore “the less-than-admirable aspects of [Sanger’s] career.” [111]

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