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

Nell Irvin Painter Unpacks Whiteness in the Context of Anti-Black Violence


This past June, like many months, has been filled with both tragic and absurd US news items regarding both ideas of racial identity and the ongoing realities of white supremacy. Responding to the white supremacist terrorist attack on Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the viral story of Rachel Dolezal, an N.A.A.C.P. chapter leader of Spokane, Washington, who for years had presented herself as a black woman despite being white, historian Nell Irvin Painter (author, The History of White People) unpacks what it means to be white in America.

Painter traces the evolution of whiteness from its Anglo-American origins, to eugenicists classifications of “Nordic,” “Alpine,” and “Mediterranean” Europeans, to the operation of whiteness today “on a toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racist hatred.’ ”

Read her insightful commentary in full via the New York Times. 



For Virginia’s Native People, Continued Impacts of 1924 Racial Integrity Act

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 4.47.37 PMAs members of the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia seek federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the impact of a long-dead Virginia eugenicist, Walter Plecker, continues to be felt, reports the Washington Post. As the head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Plecker was the architect of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which “criminalized interracial marriage and required that every birth in the state be recorded by race with  the only options being ‘White’ and ‘Colored,’ ” effectively erasing “Indian” as a recognized racial category. The impacts of that legal erasure continue to be felt.

Read the story in full here.


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 Airport Biometrics Impact Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People

This article is from 2012, but contains information that will be new to most. Alissa Bohling reports for on how the use of biometrics technology by airport security impacts transgender and gender non-conforming travelers, locating the nexus of race, religion, gender, and sexuality in the War on Terror:

“Since when did travelers’ gender become the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) business? Since at least September of 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an advisory warning against “Al-Qaeda’s continued efforts to plan multiple attacks against the US and US interests overseas.” The advisory included a list of potential terrorism targets, a mention of recent arrests of unnamed terror suspects and this warning: “Male bombers may dress as females in order to discourage scrutiny.”

Maybe there was verifiable intelligence about male terrorists who like to slip women’s wear over their explosive devices. Or maybe the wardens of the security state read one too many spy novels. But either way, bringing gender into the security arena has major consequences.



Since the DHS advisory, at least two other factors have brought gender further into the national security equation. One is Secure Flight, the program begun in 2009 requiring passengers to disclose their birth date and gender to airlines to be compared with their government-issued photo ID, purportedly in order to reduce the number of false matches to names on the federal watch list.

The other is the widespread use of body scanners.

Because gender has become one of the first markers in the technology-centric race for body-based data – known as “biometrics” in surveillance-speak – transgender and gender non-conforming people have been some of the first and most directly affected.

In an investigation begun during our “Surveillance in the Homeland” series on civil liberties in post-9/11 America, Truthout uncovered how their experiences illustrate what’s at stake when the human body becomes a data point in the war on terror.”

Read the article in full.


Gene Editing, Designer Babies, and “The New Eugenics”

Last month, a group of Chinese scientists published a research paper in the journal Protein and Cell that rocked the science and bioethics community. The research reported on experiments involving DNA editing of a human embryo – a first for the international scientific community.

The research, conducted on non-viable embryos, attempted to replace certain genes that cause an often fatal blood disorder. Nick Stockton of explained:

“The technique Huang and his co-investigators used, CRISPR/Cas9, allows researchers to snip out and insert specific segments of genetic code. Discovered in 2012, the technique is the subject of a lot of excitement and trepidation in the cell sciences (and its investors are already being suggested as candidates for a Nobel Prize). Relative to other gene editing techniques, CRISPR/Cas9 is easy to use, and it seems to work in just about every living organism. That means it could, among other possibilities, hold the key to personalized medical therapies, new drugs, and (as the Chinese scientists attempted) human genetic modification.”

Beyond technical concerns about the unknown short and long-term consequences of gene editing in humans, the news has raised profound questions about the ethics of gene editing, with many blocs of scientists calling for a moratorium on human embryonic DNA editing. Wired quoted George Q. Daley, stem cell biologist, who wrote:

“There are two issues: One is trying to understand at a deeper scientific level whether such an approach can be made safely. The second would be the broader and deeper ethical considerations of editing our heredity. I feel very significant concerns about using a new technology to do something as bold as changing someone’s germ line – not just for that individual, but for all of the offspring [emphasis added].”

While there has been much debate about the ethics of “designer babies,”* primarily accomplished through the artificial sorting and selection of sperm, actual DNA manipulation raises similar, if more pronounced, questions about scientists’ ability to “play god,” and how the use of such technologies in practice may reinforce hierarchies of power based on access, class, race, disability, and nationality.


*See the documentary Designer Babies: The New Eugenics (2010) which examines both the ethical implications and practical application of “designing babies.”   


FBI forensic evidence unit botched decades of testimony

A recent admission from the Justice Department and FBI have called into question the misuse of forensic evidence in criminal courts. The Washington Post broke the story this past month:

“The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.”

Hair sample

The misrepresentation of hair recognition technology under oath include 32 cases in which defendants were sentenced to death.

An incredulous Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate: “The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about.”

The case once again highlights pervasive assumptions that science and scientists are necessarily objective, operating outside of social/cultural biases or political pressures. The interplay of scientific practice, politics, and power is often times much more complicated, as eugenics history demonstrates. While refraining from simplistic “science bashing,” these historical and contemporary revelations urge the general public to better interrogate the motivations behind the presentation of scientific “fact.”

The FBI revelation also calls to mind the very different use of hair as an identifying characteristic during the American eugenics movement – in attempts to characterize biologically distinct racial groups through analysis of hair structure.



Fit for Citizenship? A Photo Essay



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.

What’s Next for Haunted Files?


The plaster columns, vinyl cabinets, and aged walls have been torn down, peeled off, and repainted. The filing cabinets, desks, and detail items stored away. The last traces of the recreated Eugenics Record Office that filled our gallery space here at the A/P/A Institute these past months are on their way out. The good news? The project is far from over.

Here’s what will be going on with Haunted Files in the coming months:

  • Before the exhibit came down, we commissioned detailed professional documentation of the space. In the coming months, we’ll be working with Tisch ITP students Ziv Schneider and Ken Amarit to develop an immersive digital representation of our Eugenics Record Office, complete with an accessible archive of the files contained in the exhibit. Want to revisit a lecture, field report, or correspondence you saw during your trip? You’ll be able to search tags and themes to pull up each and every document from the exhibit!
Stina Nielsen and Antu Yacob perform overlapping monologues from “Unheard Voices: Haunted Files,” written by Judy Tate and Michael Slade.
  • We’re hard at work planning our conference America and its “Unfit”: Eugenics and Now, which takes a broad historical lens to examine the history of American eugenics, and the evolving impact of its legacy in our present moment of meritocracy, exclusion, and so-called security. It’s set to take place on Friday, September 25 and Saturday, September 26. Mark your calendars and stay tuned for further details!


We can’t thank you all enough for your support of this project. From those who planned or participated in class visits, to walk-in visitors and public program attendees, to all those who worked with us in the development of the exhibits — the critical conversations about science, history, race, ability, and identity that you’ve made space for have allowed Haunted Files to thrive. We look forward to tapping into the same energy in the coming months!