PPFA of Greater New York breaks ties with Margaret Sanger over her “harmful connections to the eugenics movement”

By Dave Andrusko

Given what has transpired the last few months, it comes as no surprise that “Planned Parenthood of Greater New York will remove the name of Margaret Sanger, a founder of the national organization, from its Manhattan health clinic because of her ‘harmful connections to the eugenics movement,’” according to Nikita Stewart, writing in today’s New York Times.

“No surprise”? PPFA’s iconic founder which the nation’s preeminent abortion provider has wrapped in seemingly impenetrable bubble wrap to protect against all charges for the last hundred years?

Well, the times they are a changin.

Stewart quotes a statement from Karen Seltzer, the chair of the New York affiliate’s board. “The removal of Margaret Sanger’s name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood’s contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.” Planned Parenthood of Greater New York is the largest affiliate.

What “legacy”? For some time now, but particularly in a 2016 “Factsheet,” the National office of Planned Parenthood has finessed Sanger’s uglier statements. 

The first two pages of that Factsheet offer  a glowing account of Sanger before shifting to “Was Sanger Racially Motivated?” and “Sanger and Eugenics.”

On the former, Sanger is given a clean bill of health….except for “her speech on birth control to a women’s auxiliary branch of the Ku Klux Klan” in 2016. But even that is explained away as a reflection of “Sanger’s passion to spread and mainstream birth control [which] led her to speak to any group interested in learning how to plan their reproduction.” [To provide cover, the Factsheet adds, “Planned Parenthood strongly disagrees with Sanger’s decision to address an organization that spread hatred.”]

The Eugenics angle is even trickier. The authors of the Factsheet place her eugenic statements in the context of all the “best” people dabbled in, if not enthusiastically embraced, “improving the race.”

After some hemming and hawing, the Factsheet/PPFA “acknowledges these major flaws in Sanger’s view—and we believe they are wrong.” 

What major flaws? According to the Times story, for “placing so-called illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and dope fiends on farms and in open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening and development of moral conduct.” That, and oh by the way, PPFA in 2016 “also condemned her support for policies to sterilize people who had disabilities that could not be treated” and “for banning immigrants with disabilities.”

What about the National PPFA?

In a statement, the national organization said it supported the New York chapter’s decision to strike Ms. Sanger name from the clinic. There is no sign on the facility, but it had been identified both internally and publicly by Ms. Sanger’s name. It will now be known as the Manhattan Health Center. 

“Planned Parenthood, like many other organizations that have existed for a century or more, is reckoning with our history, and working to address historical inequities to better serve patients and our mission,” Melanie Roussell Newman, a spokeswoman for the group, said in the statement.

It is not until the reader is four paragraphs from the end of the story (and after listening to Sanger’s best known biographer defend her) that Stewart mentions the fiery battles going on internally. She only mentions one. (We’ve written about them hereherehere; and here.)

The New York affiliate’s effort to disavow Ms. Sanger comes as it wrestles with internal turmoil, including the recent ouster of its executive director, Laura McQuade, in part because of complaints that she had mistreated Black employees. Ms. [Merle] McGee said there was no connection between Ms. McQuade’s departure and the decision to remove Ms. Sanger’s name. The move, she said, arose out of a three-year effort to tackle racism internally and to improve relationships with groups led by Black women who have been wary of Planned Parenthood’s origins. Of the New York affiliate’s 22 board members, one is Black, two are Asian and two are Hispanic. “The biggest concern with Margaret Sanger is her public support for the eugenics medical philosophy which was rooted in racism, ableism and classism,” Ms. McGee said. 

[Ms. McGee is the New York chapter’s chief equity and engagement officer.]

It’s interesting that Stewart ends her story with a likely apocryphal story that places Sanger in the best possible light. But that is small potatoes in comparison.

Sanger’s baggage is on display for all to see. You can understand why Planned Parenthood has attempted to keep the halo it placed over Sanger’s head in place. 

Once that halo is dislodged, it raises the specter of the fruit of the poisonous tree—an organization that began steeped in eugenics and questionably racial attitudes would find itself with a disproportionate number of its abortion clinics in areas where minority women are concentrated and a staff rebellion at Planned Parenthood’s Kansas City-area office over allegations of abusive behavior and racism from current and former staff.