Shining Light on the Dark Side of PPFA Founder Margaret Sanger

By  Angela Franks

Suppose you get a fundraising appeal from an organization that seems commendable. You consider clicking “Donate Now” to hand over $20. But you find out that the organization’s founder said that its purpose was “nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who would become defective.” Your money is now headed elsewhere.

That is what Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion chain, fears.

Over the last few years, Margaret Sanger – Planned Parenthood’s founder – has been increasingly in the news, and it has not always been positive. Despite the strenuous efforts of an army of reporters, celebrities and tenured professors, the public is learning the truth about Sanger: While a fervent crusader and an organizational genius, she had a dark side.

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) founded what would come to be called Planned Parenthood in 1916, after an education in Greenwich Village bohemian socialism and free-love ideology, with a good dose of British neo-Malthusianism as well. Neo-Malthusianism was a marriage of eugenics and population control that was popular around the turn of the 20th century among progressives. It took its name from Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who had claimed that food production would inevitably be outstripped by population growth. He was wrong, as agricultural revolutions even in his own time and again in the 20th century dramatically increased the amount of food the world produces.

But neo-Malthusians never let facts get in the way of a good story, and here the story was that the so-called “unfit” were multiplying much more rapidly than the supposedly “fit.” What they needed was contraception, or “birth control,” a term Sanger popularized: the control of the births of the “unfit” (the poor, the disabled, the putatively unintelligent) by the “fit” (Sanger and her friends). The neo-Malthusians exclaimed, “Quality, not quantity”: eugenic quality, not population quantity.

Sanger’s progressivism was no hindrance to her embrace of eugenics; elite eugenicists were usually progressives. Eugenics was the enlightened way to a better world: It supposedly got at the roots of social problems.

Think of it this way: If you are a neo-Malthusian, you are convinced that all the world’s problems–war, poverty, etc.–are due to women having too many babies. (For reasons this view is simplistic, do a web-search for “population and economic growth,” but in the meantime stay with me.) It’s good for society to slow the reproduction of the poor and stupid (remember, you are a neo-Malthusian). What is good for society must be encouraged.

But if someone is truly “unfit,” he or she is too stupid or out-of-control to stop reproducing voluntarily. So, as Sanger wrote in 1921, governments should “attempt to restrain, either by force or persuasion, the moron and the imbecile from producing his large family of feeble-minded offspring.”

Now you understand Sanger’s support of forced sterilization of the “unfit,” something enthusiastically promoted by many of her friends and collaborators, such as former Planned Parenthood president Alan Guttmacher (after whom Planned Parenthood’s research arm is named) or Clarence Gamble, who used his fortune to set up sterilization clinics throughout the South and Midwest. Gamble was proud of his work promoting involuntary sterilization but complained in 1947 that there was much more to do: “For every one man or woman who has been sterilized, there are 40 others who can continue to pour defective genes into the State’s bloodstream to pollute and degrade future generations.”

Sanger was one of the first to argue that women were oppressed, not by sexist societal structures and attitudes, but by their own physiology. They had to be liberated from themselves, from the demands of their own bodies.

This kind of denigration of the female body would seem to be a bad foundation for feminism. But for Sanger, there was literally nothing more to feminism than that. You might think that feminism should be about liberating women from sexism in society. Sanger thought she knew better: Feminism is about liberating women from themselves.

How does Planned Parenthood respond to all of this? It will say that anyone important in the 1920s and 1930s was a eugenicist. More or less true–but does that make eugenics any less reprehensible? We don’t excuse slaveholders just because all their important friends in 1860 were also pro-slavery.

Planned Parenthood will also say that we should give Sanger the same pass we give Thomas Jefferson: He was a slaveholder, yet we still praise him for his other accomplishments. But the analogy doesn’t hold. Jefferson recognized that slavery was incompatible with the principles of the new American republic and struggled with the issue his whole life. Sanger never agonized over her support of eugenics, and she founded institutions whose aims explicitly included the promotion of eugenics. Jefferson not only did not make the promotion of slavery his main enterprise, he even called it an “abominable crime.”

Sanger was so committed to eugenics that she was a lifelong member of the American Eugenics Society. This gives the lie to another argument by Sanger supporters, namely, that Sanger’s support of eugenics was merely pragmatic. She didn’t really believe it, they say, but she put up with eugenicists to get their support. But no one reading Sanger’s personal letters can think she was anything but what she said she was: a eugenicist.

Just to give one example: in 1955, she wrote her niece complaining about the shift in rhetoric from “birth control” (which was her preferred term, because it emphasized the control of the “unfit”) to “family planning.” She writes, “I see no wider meaning of family planning than control and as for restriction, there are definitely some families throughout the world where there is every indication that restriction should be an order as (well as) an ideal for the betterment of the family and the race.”

These private words confided to her niece in the last decades of her life show how deep Sanger’s commitment was to “restricting” the reproduction and thereby the freedom of the “unfit.”

To use terms Sanger would understand: With all this eugenic junk in the organization’s DNA, can Planned Parenthood really be trusted today?