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”


Biometric Policing: More Local Police Using Facial Recognition Software

A recent New York Times article details the frighteningly pervasive application of facial recognition softwares, originally developed for overseas military use, to local police departments across the country. Because the application of the technology to domestic police forces is rather recent, there are no clear guidelines or restrictions on its use. Timothy Williams reports:

“The software can identify 16,000 points on a person’s face – to determine the distance between the eyes or the shape of the lips, for instance – and compare them with thousands of similar points in police booking or other photos at a rate of more than one million faces a second.”

Despite public reservations about police misconduct, “the F.B.I. is pushing ahead with its $1 billion Next Generation Identification program, in which the agency will gather data like fingerprints, iris scans and photographs, as well as information collected through facial recognition software. That software is capable of analyzing driver’s license photos and images from the tens of thousands of surveillance cameras around the country. The F.B.I. system will eventually be made accessible to more than 18,000 local, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies,” the article reports.

“But people who are not criminal suspects are included in the database, and the error rate for the software is as high as 20  – meaning the authorities could misidentify millions of people.”

Such cutting edge technologies that merge biometric measurements with the power of big data draw on a long history. As early as 1879, French police officer and researcher Alphonse Bertillon devised a series of standardized measurements through which criminal suspects could be identified. Introduced in the US in 1887, Bertillon System would gain widespread acceptance until it was supplanted by fingerprinting as a primary means of law enforcement identification.

Bertillon poster of physical features Musée des Collections Historiques de la Préfecture de Police
Bertillon poster of physical features
Musée des Collections Historiques de la Préfecture de Police

Bertillon’s reliance on facial measurements was contemporaneous with the popularization of phrenology and later eugenics, which used similar measurement techniques to attempt to distinguish superior and inferior biological “races”. How might the racial application of such measurements have distorted its use by law enforcement? How might contemporary issues of racism in policing be impacted by the use of new biometric technologies?

Bertillon card 20472, November 21, 1908 New York City Municipal Archives
Bertillon card 20472, November 21, 1908
New York City Municipal Archives