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.”

 

 

 

 

Fit for Citizenship? A Photo Essay

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In the latest issue of Dissent Magazine, Michelle Chen explores how eugenics thought shaped American immigration policy in the 1920s and beyond.

“Eugenics did not invent whiteness. Well before they intersected with evolutionary theory, ideas of race and racism had been central to colonialism and slavery and had been used to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples. But eugenics built on earlier philosophies of human nature by tying genetics and racial identity to notions of modernity and progress. Linking hereditary traits to intelligence or temperament helped reconcile the ideal of democracy—a principle theoretically based on inclusion and equality—with a culture that dehumanized the Other. This rationalization of privilege aimed to keep the economic hierarchy humming, enforce the illusion of meritocracy, and simultaneously curb the social mobility of supposedly inferior groups.”

Read the piece in full here.

Disability, Sexuality, and Stigma

Katherine Quarmby offers a critical framing of the stigma attached to sexuality and people with disabilities, both historically and today. The article draws on the work of Dr. Tom Shakespeare, author of the seminal The Sexual Politics of Disability. Eugenics’ hereditary ideas of “fit” and “unfit” bodies was crucial in creating the pervasive trope of “contamination” that Shakespeare identifies as one of four tropes surrounding sexuality and people with disabilities.

“Asexual, hypersexual, perverse and contaminated: these four damaging tropes from history combine to form a bitter legacy for disabled people.”

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Sofie Middernacht and Maarten Alexander/Mosaic, via The Atlantic

Read Quarmby’s article in full. 

See also: Sins Invalid, a national performance project that uses performance art as a platform to reframe conversations about sexuality and disability through an intersectional LGBTQ and people of color lens. 

Photos from “The Normal”: Images from the Haunted Files of Eugenics

We’re happy to share professional documentation of  “The Normal”: Images from the Haunted Files of Eugenics, a public installation that was on view at the NYU Kimmel Windows Gallery from October 31, 2014 through January , 2015. The installation drew from public displays and propaganda of the American eugenics movement, which distilled the “objective” research of institutions like the Eugenics Record Office into visceral imagery and familiar racial, gendered, and ableist stereotypes.

Click the image below to see images from the installation. Image credits: GION Studio.

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Virginia to Compensate Victims of Eugenic Sterilization

The State of Virginia has passed legislation that would offer financial compensation to victims of the state’s eugenic sterilization program, which forcibly sterilized over 8,000 Virginians deemed “unfit” to reproduce from the 1920s through 1970s. Reports indicate that only 11 surviving victims have been identified, and will each receive a $25,000 compensation. This makes Virginia the second state to address the crimes of forced sterilization through compensation. In 2012, North Carolina announced similar plans to compensate surviving victims of forced sterilization. Payments began in 2014, though the process has been riddled with red tape and loopholes that some say are preventing sterilization victims from receiving their proper compensation.

Virginia Sterilization Act of 3/20/1924
Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924

 

Virginia passed its Eugenic Sterilization Act in 1924, alongside a “Racial Integrity Act” which made it “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person.” Battles over the legality of the state’s sterilization law culminated in 1927, when the Supreme Court ruled eugenic sterilization constitutional in the infamous ruling in the case Buck v. Bell. Eugenics sterilization laws proliferated after the ruling. Eventually over 30 states adopted compulsory sterilization bills motivated by eugenics.

Virginia order form for sterilization procedure
Virginia order form for sterilization procedure

 

Though the eugenics movement fell out of popular favor with the onset of World War II, Virginia’s sterilization act remained on the books until 1979. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the law was increasingly used to target Black women within the welfare system.

 

 

Footage from November 20: “Return of the Unfit”

On November 20, 2014, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU hosted “Return of the Unfit: A Gathering to Locate, Challenge, & Exorcise Our Eugenic Ghosts” as part of the Haunted Files project.

Artists, activists, and academics joined forces to trace the lineages of American nativism, racism, and ableism through readings, performance, music, and analysis. The program featured scholar Awam Amkpa (NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis), poet and activist Sonia Guinansaca (New York State Youth Leadership Council and CultureStrike), historian and lawyer Paul A. Lombardo (Georgia State University), author and activist N. Ordover (American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism), writer Tommy “Teebs” Pico (absentMINDR), social justice activist and expert Loretta Ross (co-founder, SisterSong), scholar Dean Saranillio (NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis), composer and producer Sxip Shirey, and musician and educator/activist Sonny Singh (Red Baraat).

 

British Eugenics and Fabian Socialism: H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw

Eugenics itself varied from nation to nation, and within nations positions varied. Both Wells and Shaw were Fabian socialists who disdained the raggedness of the working class and sought in eugenics a means to attain socialism through gradualist reforms while supporting British imperialism. They were a forerunners to the contemporary Labour Party. This essay by Jenny Jopson explores their different positions as Fabian eugenicists.

“The Language of Degeneration: Eugenic Ideas in The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw”

 

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The Problem With the “Population Bomb”: Eugenics and Population Control

Newsweek’s recent article “How to Defuse the Population Bomb” confronts an old subject with a frustratingly uncritical eye. The piece details the much-discussed problem of overpopulation with a focus on its environmental and economic implications. It paints a troubling picture of a poor, dirty, and overcrowded “Africa” (referred to en masse as often as by specific countries). The answer to avoiding an even more overburdened, resource-starved earth? Massively increase birth control accessibility and family planning education in the Global South. While informed, consensual access to birth control ought to be a worldwide right, the uncritical, alarmist discourse around population control deployed here fails to incorporate a critical historical lens.

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The article makes a brief foray into the history of birth control via Western intervention in the non-white world, linked to the slave trade and the era of formal colonization in the African continent. But the historical analysis stops there, before reaching the 20th century and the insidious modern history of continued Western intervention into family planning in the developing world—a history linked to eugenics and population control.

The American eugenics movement of the early 20th century was largely concerned with domestic issues of “race suicide”—the perceived demographic shift away from a white Anglo-American majority due to immigration and variable reproductive rates between racial groups. But this domestic demographic crisis was clearly linked to a parallel crisis happening at a global scale. Imperial rhetoric employed in works like Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely influential The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy was amplified by the notion that population growth in the non-white world would outstrip that of the “civilized nations.” International policymaking and philanthropy, coupled with alliances between eugenicists, neo-Malthusians, and other population control camps, would follow. The 1925 Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in New York brought together a critical mass of parties interested in global population control. Foundational international birth control organizations such as International Planned Parenthood Federation and Pathfinder International were borne out of the intersections of the eugenics, birth control, and population control movements and the wallets of eugenically minded philanthropists like Clarence Gamble. For decades, Gamble’s Pathfinder International oversaw the distribution of untested and unsafe birth control methods throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while funding staffing at Puerto Rico’s Family Planning Association, which advocated for sterilization as an alternative to contraception. Coupled with the implementation of Harry H. Laughlin’s “model eugenic sterilization law” in 1936, one-third of Puerto Rican women would be sterilized by 1968. Rushed, dangerous, and ill-informed contraception initiatives, such as the one undertaken in India in the 1970, were consistently pushed and funded by American interests.

Sterilization propaganda in Puerto Rico promised success and stability after "la operación".
Sterilization propaganda in Puerto Rico promised success and stability after “la operación”.
Sterilization campaigns targeting women of color came under increasing fire from women of color activists in the the 1970s.
Sterilization campaigns targeting women of color came under increasing fire from women of color activists in the the 1970s.

All in the name of “population control” and cloaked in arguments of economic development, environmental sustainability, women’s rights…

Even today, the distribution of a little-known and under-tested drug called Quinacrine, has been cited as the “newest tool in a decades-long movement of coercive sterilization.” As reported by the Center for New Community, a racial justice research institution, the push for distribution of Quinacrine in the developing world is linked to contemporary far-right anti-immigrant organization and key players in the history of eugenics and population control.

The point is not a simplistic assertion that calls for population control are akin to calls for eugenics or neo-eugenics. Rather, we urge contemporary conversations about population control to consider critically the history of how eugenics operated within the population control movement, soiling a potentially beneficial project with racism, abuse, and violence. Alarmist calls for population control are more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past than are critical, historically nuanced conversations. Even more, when it comes to conversations about very real problems of resource depletion and poverty, we have to wonder why difficult questions of resource re-distribution and overconsumption tend to be passed over for the easy tropes of “too many Africans.” The implications of the privileging of Western luxury over “third world” bodies are hard to ignore.

 


 

Read more:

Hansen, Randall and King, Desmond. “Eugenics and World Population Control.” In Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America.

 

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!