Editor’s note. In the April 2005, edition of National Right to Life News, NRLC Education Director Dr. Randall K. O’Bannon reviewed Angela Franks’s then-new book, “Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy.” What follows is Dr. O’Bannon follow-up Q&A with Ms. Franks which appeared in the June 2005, edition. Planned Parenthood abortion agenda is known to pro-lifers, although not to the general population. Even less is known about PPFA’s founder, Margaret Sanger. In this, the latest entry in our year-long “Roe at 40” series, we get a scholarly but accessible account of who Sanger was and what she believed. It makes for a great read!
Q: Can you briefly define what you mean by “the ideology of control” and explain how this guided Margaret Sanger and her allies?
A: I use the term “ideology of control” to describe the worldview animating Sanger, which brought together the three elements of her program: eugenics, birth control, and population control. She believed that female fertility was a dangerous and frequently oppressive force, bad both for women and for society as a whole. It had to be controlled so that society could control who would be born (“quality, not quantity,” as one slogan said).
Q: Sure, a lot of people, including Margaret Sanger, were into eugenics in the early to mid-20th century. But didn’t that fade after people saw the terrible fruits of eugenics in Nazi Germany?
A: This is a common misconception. We want to believe that eugenics died out with the Nazis. It gets us off the hook. Now, eugenics did fall out of favor with the public after the revelation of the Nazi horrors. But Sanger, as part of a self-anointed elite, was crucial in repackaging eugenics as population control after the war. There are important distinctions to be kept in mind. Nazism is a subset of eugenics, but not all eugenicists were (or are) Nazis. Eugenics is also not necessarily the same as racism or anti-semitism.
Eugenicists view human beings not as persons with an innate dignity and worth that cannot be quantified but as little more than a collection of genes. People are first and foremost either “fit” or “unfit.” For some eugenicists, being of a certain race marked one as “unfit.” But for Sanger and the most “effective” forms of eugenic ideology today, it is not race per se that marks one as “unfit.” The targets are those with a supposedly inferior “quality of life” the poor, persons with mental disabilities, those suffering certain diseases. It is no accident that Planned Parenthood clinics are disproportionately located in impoverished communities.
The short answer to the question is: many people in fact are still eugenicists, because they believe that poverty, disability, and other problems can be eliminated through preventing the birth of those who might suffer from those problems. In fact, today, eugenics has become much more respectable, to such a degree that scientists have been hailing a “new eugenics” since the 1970s.
Q: Is there any necessary connection between eugenics and abortion? How and why has abortion become deployed as a tool of eugenics?
A: If by that you mean that eugenics is possible only when there is legalized abortion, there is no necessary connection. Eugenic goals were realized for decades (since the 1920s, at least) through immigration restriction, institutionalization, and coerced or forced contraception and sterilization.
However, the control mentality leads inexorably to abortion. For example, with the advent of prenatal genetic testing, combined with abortion, eugenicists had the tools to selectively and efficiently target those with genetic disabilities. Frederick Osborn, the longtime leader of the American Eugenics Society, could say in the early 1970s that abortion was turning out to be one of “the great eugenic advances of our time.”
The history of Planned Parenthood does indeed indicate a logical connection between eugenics and abortion. Abortion is the ultimate weapon in the war against female fertility.
Q: Clear up something. Did Sanger support abortion?
A: This question causes a great deal of confusion. Sanger would say one thing in public and another in private. So, her early fliers promoting the nation’s first birth control clinic (in 1916) say, “Do not kill, do not take life [a reference to abortion], but prevent.” This seems to be almost a pro-life statement, and there are others that sound similar.
But her later clinic referred several women out for clandestine abortions. She didn’t really have any moral objections to abortion. It seems that she did not want to damage her cause by advocating something as universally condemned as abortion. Sanger wanted to make (and keep) her cause respectable. She also died in 1966, just when abortion was beginning to be hotly debated.
Q: Was Margaret Sanger a racist?
A: Planned Parenthood says, “No!” It points to her friendship with blacks and her praise of those who don’t manifest “race prejudice.” Some pro-lifers say, “Yes!” Some of the evidence that the latter use to support their position is, unfortunately, incorrect. There was an article published by Ernst Rodin, a Nazi, in the Birth Control Review in the 1930s. Sanger founded and edited the BCR for many years, but she resigned in 1929. She was not responsible for the Nazi article. Actually, she was very anti-Nazi. Her political loyalties lay elsewhere.
There is also a much-cited letter that she wrote to a co-worker, Clarence Gamble, in which she wrote, “We don’t want the word to get out that we mean to exterminate the Negro race.” I think there is no way to prove decisively what she meant by this. But it seems to me, based on the context, that she does not want a misconception to gain currency among the black population. There is nothing else close to the language of “exterminating the black race” in any of her other writings, public or private.
But that doesn’t let her off the hook! The co-worker to whom she was writing, Clarence Gamble, was a notorious racist, and he wasn’t the only one in her organizations. Lothrop Stoddard, a best-selling author who wrote The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (and now you know about all you need to know about that book!), was on the Board of Directors and National Council of her American Birth Control League for years.
In addition to coddling racists and not challenging their oppressive beliefs, Sanger pursued a eugenic campaign to control the fertility of the poor that had a disproportionate effect on immigrants and blacks, because racial minorities tend to suffer from poverty disproportionately. So, though Sanger did not use race as such as a marker of “unfitness,” her tendency to consider the poor “unfit” led her organizations to target blacks especially in the U.S. and persons of color around the world for abortion and coercive population control measures.
While Sanger wasn’t a racist herself, she befriended racists, gave them institutional cover, and pursued policies that were most detrimental to racial minorities. Due in no small measure to the targeted placement of Planned Parenthood clinics in poor neighborhoods, blacks have abortions at triple the rate of whites, even though the former tend to be much more pro-life. Whether racially motivated or not, the ideology of control is lethal for minority communities, for the power to control is in the hands of self-anointed elites who do not recognize that the powerless have inalienable human rights.
Q: You offer this book as a feminist critique of eugenics. In what way does your work qualify as feminist?
A: Great question! Feminism should be about the real liberation of women and girls from injustice. Sanger derailed feminism by arguing that women’s problems were due to their fertility. This isn’t feminism; it is a misogynist scapegoating of the female body.
My book exposes this ideology that has corrupted feminism, the logic of which has ultimately led many women into thinking that their liberation somehow depends on abortion. But abortion is not liberating for women, because it tells a woman to “solve” her problems by committing a lethally violent act against a vulnerable and innocent person.
Real feminism affirms the value of motherhood and of self-gift to female development. And it attempts to deal directly with the problems that women face, instead of obfuscating the issues by blaming their fertility and children.