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”

Assault on Reproductive Justice Distorts Disability Rights Perspectives

In the past months, Ohio state legislators have introduced a bill that would criminalize abortions of those “seeking the abortion solely because” of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. While the bill ostensibly seeks to uphold the legitimate rights of people with Down Syndrome to live fruitful, meaningful, and self-directed lives, critics say that conservative pro-life legislators have co-opted the language of disability rights in order to forward their anti-abortion agenda.

Writing for Dame Magazine, Robin Marty elaborates:

” ‘This will put up a barrier between women and their health-care providers,’ Jaime Miracle, Deputy Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told DAME Magazine. ‘How do you define ‘knowingly’? What kind of standards are we setting? Are we turning doctors into inquisitors for every women who comes in seeking a termination? Do they have to question every woman on why they are getting an abortion?’

According to Miracle, like most abortion restrictions, this ban will disproportionately effect lower-income women, as those with financial means will be able to leave the Ohio to seek a termination in a state where it is still legal.  Ironically, at the same time, the state legislature is cutting health-care budgets, social-service budgets, and even homes for those with special needs. “Lower-income women who are going to need support services, especially to raise a child with challenges, are going to be the ones to fall through the cracks,’ she said.”

As Ohio legislators simultaneously defund services for people with disabilities while purporting to uphold disability rights through pro-life legislation, their agenda becomes more apparent. In an opinion piece for reproductive justice publication RH Reality Check, David Perry explored the supposed tension between disability rights and reproductive justice:

‘The tension between reproductive and disability rights that these kinds of bills seek to worsen is not a new problem; in fact, there has been a false choice between the two movements since the development of amniocentesis made disability-selection abortion possible. In 1991, for example, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “Abortion Issue Divides Advocates for the Disabled.” What’s changed, though, is the intensifying emphasis on Down syndrome in the anti-choice legal maneuvering. As prenatal tests become cheaper and available earlier, they are being used in more and more pregnancies. As a result, anti-choicers are using their alleged concerns for disability rights as a way to erode choice.’

Intersectional reproductive justice and disability rights group Generations Ahead rejected the supposed opposition of disability rights and reproductive rights in a statement titled The Unnecessary Opposition of Rights responding to a separate, but related, development.

These cases illustrate the convoluted legacy of eugenics thinking as it pertains to reproductive justice. While some may use the bitter history of American eugenics to support a pro-life agenda, reductively arguing that selective abortion is simply a new form of eugenics, others recognize that continued attempts to restrict the reproductive choices of women, especially women of color and/or low-income women, itself draws from racist and classist motivations that played out with devastating consequences when state eugenic sterilization laws were on the books across the US from the 1910s to 1970s. Disconnects amongst those advocating for women’s reproductive rights are similarly longstanding. In the 1910s, influential birth control advocate Margaret Sanger fought for the right for (some) women to access birth control and contraception, while collaborating with eugenicists crafting a legislative framework to deny those very rights to marginalized Black, Native American, immigrant, and/or low-income women and women with real or perceived disabilities through forced sterilization.

The continuing tensions and controversies highlight the need for the sort of intersectional reproductive justice lens pioneered by Black women’s health advocates during the 1990’s and beyond. As the foundational reproductive justice activist and thinker Loretta Ross has written on the emergence of a reproductive justice framework:

“Reproductive Justice is, in fact, a paradigm shift beyond demanding gender equality or attaching abortion rights to a broader reproductive health agenda. All of these concepts are, in fact, encompassed by the Reproductive Justice framework. RJ is an expansion of the theory of intersectionality developed by women of color and the practice of self-help from the Black women’s health movement to the reproductive rights movement, based on the application of the human rights framework to the United States. Reproductive justice is in essence an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose multiple communities experience a complex set of reproductive oppressions. It is based on the understanding that the impacts of race, class, gender and sexual identity oppressions are not additive but integrative, producing this paradigm of intersectionality. For each individual and each community, the effects will be different, but they share some of the basic characteristics of intersectionality – universality, simultaneity and interdependence.

Reproductive Justice is a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families and communities because reproductive justice seamlessly integrates those individual and group human rights particularly important to marginalized communities. We believe that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access. For example, a woman cannot make an individual decision about her body if she is part of a community whose human rights as a group are violated, such as through environmental dangers or insufficient quality health care. Reproductive justice addresses issues of population control, bodily self-determination, immigrants’ rights, economic and environmental justice, sovereignty, and militarism and criminal injustices that limit individual human rights because of group or community oppressions.”

 

 

 

 

How ableism justifies wrongful birth lawsuits

There’s been a recent uproar since news broke that a white Ohio woman and her partner initiated a “wrongful birth” lawsuit against a Chicago sperm bank after discovering (post-birth) that her sperm donor was a black man.

The incident has shed light on the prevalence of racial bias in contemporary America. But it also raises the question: where is the public outcry when wrongful birth claims are made by parents of children with disabilities?

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 3.56.43 PMKi’tay Davidson writes for Black Girl Dangerous on how ableism justifies the screening, and often times, abortion, of fetuses showing signs of disabilities:

“Too often, people feel wrongful birth lawsuits are justified due to the financial burden of raising a disabled child. How about reforming healthcare, education, housing, etc. to eradicate institutional ableism that creates these financial hardships? 90 percent of fetuses testing positive for Down Syndrome will be aborted in the U.S. Eugenics cannot be our answer to ableism; advancing disability rights and justice should be.”

Read it in full here.