Planned Parenthood, Eugenics, and the Contentious Legacy of Margaret Sanger

Planned Parenthood, Eugenics, and the Contentious Legacy of Margaret Sanger


The conservative right’s renewed assault on Planned Parenthood and affordable access to reproductive health services (including, but not limited to birth control and abortion clinics) dovetails with the distortion of the legacy of Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). A social worker, social reformer, and leader of the early birth control movement, Sanger’s work for some has become defined by the strategic alliances she sought with influential eugenicists such as Charles Davenport and Madison Grant.

While the connections between the American eugenics movement and birth control movement of the 1920s and 1930s are undeniable, they are also complex, contradictory, and highly contextual. Therefore, rather than accepting a knee-jerk understanding of Sanger as a eugenicist first and foremost, we encourage readers to engage with Sanger’s writing itself.

NYU’s Margaret Sanger Papers Project is a wonderful resource that makes accessible Sanger’s letters, diaries, and correspondences. Their blog also contains many insightful pieces drawing on Sanger’s writings to critically examine today’s conversations about her work and legacy. Both of the below pieces feature excerpts from Sanger’s writings as well as a discussion on how and why her work may be willfully misremembered.

“Birth Control and Eugenics: Uneasy Bedfellows”

“The differences between Sanger and the birth control movement and the academics who lead the eugenics movement have been summarized by the Eugenics Archive site, in part:

Margaret Sanger and leaders of the birth control movement, predominantly women, believed that people should be empowered, by education, to make choices to limit their own reproduction. In a society that frowned on open discussion of sexuality and where physicians knew little about the biology of reproduction, Sanger advocated that mothers be given access to the scientific information needed to thoughtfully plan conception.

Davenport and other eugenic leaders, predominantly men, believed that the state should be empowered, by statute, to control reproduction by whole classes of people they deemed genetically inferior. Eugenicists focused on segregating the “feebly inherited” in mental institutions, ultimately seeking the legal remedy of compulsory sterilization. (They also employed immigration restriction to limit the growth of certain population groups.)”

“Excavating a Footnote: Unpacking Margaret Sanger’s Views on Charity and the Unfit”

Eugenics’ Critics: Another Sort of ‘Defective’

Despite the power and popularity of American eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement also faced its share of critics: from the Catholic Church to Boasian anthropologists, some formally trained geneticists, and standout politicians like Emanuel Celler.  (Unfortunately, resistance from communities targeted by eugenicists, such as new immigrants and people with disabilities, is more difficult to trace.) Though their criticisms were largely unheeded in the 1910s and 1920s, their contributions to a slowly growing body of political, academic, and scientific disregard for eugenics thought would help spell the end of popular American eugenics by the end of World War II.

Now, we’ve come across a fascinating refutation of eugenics from a 1915 edition of The Day Book, a Chicago daily newspaper. In it, writer R.F. Paine writes a scathing, radically anti-corporate critique of eugenics. Stirred by the 1914 slaughter of Standard Oil strikers by Colorado militiamen, Paine suggests that the perpetrators of corporate greed and exploitation make up the true “defective” class.

It’s a welcome rebuttal to the claims of eugenicists and the philanthropists who funded them. How would such an article have been received in 1915?


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Full text:

WHERE TO BEGIN.The millions of Mrs. Harriman, relict of the great railroad “promoter,” assisted by other millions of Rockefeller and Carnegie, are to be devoted to sterilization of several hundred thousands of American “defectives” annually, as a matter of eugenics.

It is true that we don’t yet know all that the millions of our plutocracy can do to the common folks. We see that our moneyed plutocrats can own the governments of whole states, override constitutions, maintain private armies to shoot down men, women and children and railroad innocent men to life imprisonment for murder, or lesser crimes. And if we submit to such things, we ought not to be surprised if they undertake to sterilize all those who are obnoxious to them.

Of course, the proposition demands much on who are the declared “defective.”

The old Spartans, with war always in view, used to destroy, at birth, boys born with decided physical weakness. Some of our present day eugenists go farther and damn children before their birth because of parents criminally inclined. Then we have eugenic “defectives” in the insane and incurably diseased…

But isn’t there another sort of “defective,” who is quite as dangerous as any but whom discussion generally overlooks, especially discussion by senile, long-hailed pathologists, and long-eared college professors involved in the Harriman-Rockefeller scheme to sterilize?

A boy is born to millions. He either doesn’t work, isn’t useful, doesn’t contribute to human happiness, is altogether a parasite, or else he works to add to his millions, with the brutal, insane greed for more and more that caused the accumulation of the inherited millions. Why isn’t isn’t such the most dangerous “defective” of all? Why isn’t the prevention of more such progeny the first duty of eugenics? Such “defectives” directly attack the rights, liberties, happiness, lives of millions.


Talk about inheriting criminal tendencies! If there a ranker case of such than the inheritance of Standard Oil criminality as evidenced in the slaughter of mothers and their babies at Ludlow?


Sterilization of hundreds of thousands of the masses, by the Harrimans and Rockefellers? Let’s first try out the “defectives” of the sons of Harriman and Rockefeller!

Eugenics and Human Zoos: The Case of Ota Benga

In September of 1906, the Bronx Zoo drew crowds as Ota Benga, a twenty-three year old Congolese man, was put on display in the Monkey House section of the zoo. Benga, who had been taken from his home by explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, had been previously “exhibited” at the “anthropology exhibit” at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.

Many eugenicists drew from earlier articulations of scientific racism to argue that human racial differences were not unlike differences between species. Eugenicists like Henry Fairfield Osborn constructed evolutionary trees that placed the “primitive races” alongside gorillas and chimpanzees in a hierarchy that culminated with the Caucasian “race.” Based on these twisted, racist anthropological understandings, the violent placing of Ota Benga in the Bronx Zoo may not have appeared unnatural to many “educated” white Americans.


“Existing Facts of Human Ascent.” Henry Fairfield Osborn, 1926.


The Zoo debacle is also explained by the fact that it occurred under the auspices of Madison Grant – budding eugenicist and founder of the New York Zoological Society and the Bronx Zoo.

On September 10, 1906, the New York Times reported on the opening of the “Man and Monkey” show, which put Benga and an orangutan in the same cage to perform:

“The performance of man and monkey is not easy to describe. Certainly Dohong is a very patient beast. Many times Benga grabbed him by the forepaws, swung him as though he were a bag, and then dropped him. Then man and monkey grinned. On other occasions Benga pushed the monkey before him. In this attitude the pigmy was not much taller than the orang-outang, and one had a good opportunity to study their points of resemblance. Their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased. Sometimes the man and the monkey hugged each other. That pleased the children, and they laughed uproariously.”


New York Times, September 10, 1906.


An ensuing controversy emerged, led by African American clergyman, as well as white religious leaders who thought the exhibit was a “promotion of Darwinism.” Eventually, Benga was removed from the zoo to be placed in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage, and later relocated to live with a white family in Lynchburg, Virginia. Working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory, he began planning a return to the Congo.

Benga’s return became impossible when World War I broke out in 1914, halting passenger ship traffic. With no hope to return, Benga became depressed. On March 20, 1916, Benga built a ceremonial fire and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. His exceptional life is a testament to the violent dehumanization that came with eugenics’ racist misunderstandings of human evolution and human difference, permitted and fueled by Western society’s inability to see outside of its ethnocentric lens to recognize humanity in non-white “others.”


Ota Benga (1883-1916).

Read more:

Bradford, Phillips Verner. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo.

Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant.

Qureshi, Sadiah. Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain.

A History of UCSF: The Story of Ishi






Guest Post: Eugenics and “Social Hygiene” in Hartford, CT

Guest Post: Eugenics and “Social Hygiene” in Hartford, CT

Jennifer D. Miglus, Librarian, Hartford Medical Society Historical Library
On the Records of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, housed in the Hartford Medical Society Historical Library, Farmington, CT

*All images are reproduced with permission from the Records of the CT Society of Social Hygiene. 

“Society of Social Hygiene Organized – Aim is to limit spread of social disease.”
-Headline, The Hartford Courant, May 14, 1910

“Conn. Hygiene Assn. Finishes its Work – Members to vote on discontinuance at tonight’s meeting.”
-Headline, The Hartford Courant, November 10, 1921

Pamphlet describing the functions of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1916.


These headlines bracket the eleven year existence of a group of industrious and socially-minded citizens in Hartford, CT.  Initially, the Connecticut Society of Social Hygiene rose in prominence as it worked to ‘limit the spread of social disease.’  This was accomplished specifically through sexual education and promotion of the sanctity of the home, and through public health education on the spread of venereal disease.  These efforts were supported by private donations.

This was the benign face of the Society.  The other face was more troubling.  The minutes of the executive committee meeting of January 18, 1913 read as follows:

“Meeting was called to order by the Chairman, Dr. Carmalt, and the bills concerning rape and the sterilization of degenerates prepared by the Legislative Committee were presented by Dean Rogers.  The first bill was the one concerning the sterilization of defectives. . . A Board of Examiners of feeble-minded, criminals and other defectives is hereby created . . . It shall be the duty of the said Board to examine into the mental and physical condition and the record and family history so far as available, of the feeble-minded, epileptic, criminal and other defective inmates confined in the several State hospitals for the insane, the State Prison, and the reformatory, and in any charitable or penal institution maintained by the State, and if in the judgment of the majority of said Board, procreation by any such person would produce children with an inherited tendency to crime, insanity, feeble-mindedness, idiocy or imbecility, and there is no probability that the condition of any such person so examined will improve . . . then said Board shall report in writing their finding to any judge of the Superior Court with their recommendation that an operation for the prevention of procreation be performed upon such person . . .”

Promotional postcard for the play “Damaged Goods” performed under the auspices of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1916.

For several years the Society published pamphlets, hosted topical plays and gave lectures throughout the state, but they lost traction during the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1918.  In 1920 they reincorporated as the Connecticut Social Hygiene Association, Inc., a branch of the American Social Hygiene Association.  The CT Association closed its doors in November of 1921 due to a lack of funds.

A crucial question is how a group of people, assembled to do good, can find themselves involved in what most of us would call evil. How was it that upright citizens who wanted to give women power over childbearing decisions and protect both men and women from venereal disease could also espouse involuntary sterilization of people deemed ‘unfit’ by a Board of Examiners?  Partly it was the relatively new discovery of genetics and the dawning, but still relatively simplistic, awareness of how traits are inherited.  Partly, it was a lingering 19th century sensibility that people deemed deficient or undesirable should be hidden away.  The proposition that a given “race” be purified and raised to dominance while others were suppressed was a leap further still.

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Poster issued by the American Social Hygiene Association and used by the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1914.

Eugenics was popular in many countries at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was only when Nazi Germany practiced it in its most extreme form that eugenics fell out of favor.  Laws allowing involuntary sterilization remained on the books in some states as late as 1974.

The values of health and reproductive choice segued very easily into control over those considered undesirable and their involuntary sterilization.  Could such a perversion of values happen again?  It seems unlikely, but this historical precedent would have us keep our eyes, and hearts, open.

-Jennifer Miglus