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

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

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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!