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Margaret Sanger Was Not a Racist

Real Clear Politics logo Real Clear Politics 4/26/2021 Bill Scher
Margaret Sanger sitting on a table © AP Photo Margaret Sanger

The president of Planned Parenthood, Alexis McGill Johnson, last week announced in a New York Times op-ed a change in the organization’s treatment of its founder, the pioneering birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. “We have defended Sanger as a protector of bodily autonomy and self-determination, while excusing her association with white supremacist groups and eugenics as an unfortunate ‘product of her time,’” wrote Johnson, but now, “[w]e will no longer make excuses or apologize for Margaret Sanger’s actions.” Johnson stops just short of labeling Sanger a racist, saying it’s “not a simple yes or no question” and we “don’t know what was in Sanger’s heart,” but concludes that “we don’t need to in order to condemn her harmful choices.”

But this is a simple question. Sanger was not a racist.

In 1945, Sanger made her beliefs on race plain in an interview with the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender. “Discrimination is a worldwide thing. It has to be opposed everywhere. That is why I feel the Negro’s plight here is linked with that of the oppressed around the globe,” said Sanger. “The big answer, as I see it, is the education of the white man. The white man is the problem. It is the same as with the Nazis. We must change the white attitudes.”

Asked of her impression of the South from her travels, she said, “What hangs over the South is that the Negro has been in servitude. The white southerner is slow to forget this. His attitude is the archaic in this age. Supremacist thinking belongs in the museum.”

In assessing Sanger’s legacy, Johnson finds “a history of focusing on white womanhood relentlessly.” But in Sanger’s view, “Negro participation in Planned Parenthood means democratic participation in a democratic idea.” Sanger had long sought to back up such words with action. For example, she opened a birth control clinic in Harlem aided by a 15-member African American advisory council and — after a nudge from an African American social worker — included an African American doctor on its staff. According to Sanger biographer Jean Baker, at the time the waiting room was one of the only integrated spaces in “daytime New York.” Sanger hoped that increased use of contraception by African Americans would serve to “reduce their high infant and maternal death rate, to maintain better standards of health and living for those already born, and to create better opportunities for those who will be born.”

Johnson cites three aspects of Sanger’s record to suggest she had racist tendencies. One, she “spoke to the women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan at a rally in New Jersey to generate support for birth control.” Two, “she endorsed the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell, which allowed states to sterilize people deemed ‘unfit’ without their consent and sometimes without their knowledge[.]” And three, the “first human trials of the birth control pill — a project that was Sanger’s passion later in her life — were conducted with her backing in Puerto Rico, where as many as 1,500 women were not told that the drug was experimental or that they might experience dangerous side effects.” All these examples lack significant context.

Sanger spoke at a Silver Lake, N.J., Klan meeting (not a rally) in 1926 because she was invited. She wanted to spread the word about birth control to any interested party, not because she wanted to spread the word about white supremacy. When she wrote about the experience in her autobiography, she called it “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.” And she did not think much of her audience: “Never before had I looked into a sea of faces like these. I was sure that if I uttered one word, such as abortion, outside the usual vocabulary of these women they would go off into hysteria. And so my address that night had to be in the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand. In the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose.”

One can certainly criticize the principle Sanger was guided by to justify speaking to any group, even a racist group, interested in birth control. As Sanger put it, “Always to me any aroused group was a good group[.]” Counters Johnson: Speaking to a hate group “devalued and dehumanized people of color.” Still, one speech shouldn’t overshadow a long career of trying to overcome racial barriers to improve the health and quality of life of African American women.

As for Puerto Rico, it wasn’t selected for the human trials on racist grounds. Sanger’s team, led by obstetrician and gynecologist John Rock, had already been conducting tests on a handful of people in Massachusetts. But they were taking a legal risk in doing so; in the mid-1950s, distributing birth control information in Massachusetts was a felony. For large-scale testing, they had to go elsewhere. As Baker recounts, “Puerto Rico, with its clinics already in place, a sympathetic administration, no laws against contraception, and a poor population with large families, was an obvious choice[.]”

More than 1,000 women volunteered for the experiment and, according to Baker, the women were “advised informally of various risks.” If they weren’t given a thorough explanation of the potential side effects, it wasn’t because they were Puerto Rican. It was because scientific experiments in the 1950s didn’t have the same standards as today. As Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner explain in their biography of Rock, “Without denying that the conduct of the pill trials would not be compatible with our present-day conduct of clinical trials, we do not believe they were either immoral or unethical according to accepted standards of the era. Rock and [his colleague Dr. Celso-Ramon] Garcia designed the same protocols for the women of Puerto Rick as Rock had used for his own patients in Brookline.”

Sanger did endorse the Buck v. Bell ruling. But this made Sanger an ableist, not a racist. As can be seen in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ majority opinion, the particular strain of eugenics that anchored the ruling supported “sterilization of mental defectives” on the assumption that “heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, etc.” Race played no role in the decision. The sterilized plaintiff, Carrie Buck, was white. She, her mother, and her daughter were assumed (perhaps wrongly) to have been “feeble-minded,” leaving Holmes to jarringly conclude in his ruling, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

After the ruling, according to Baker, “Sanger became an outspoken supporter of involuntary sterilization.” But such support for eugenics was widespread in the 1920s. Historian Thomas C. Leonard wrote that “eugenics was, in actual fact, the broadest of churches. Eugenics was not aberrant; it was not seen as a pseudoscience. … Eugenics was mainstream; it was popular to the point of faddishness; it was supported by leading figures in the still-emerging science of genetics; it appealed to an extraordinary range of political ideologies, not least to the progressives.”

Some eugenicists were also racists, but Sanger challenged them. In fact, as Baker wrote, “When John Harvey Kellogg, of cereal fame and a staunch supporter of the Race Betterment Foundation, argued in Literary Digest that high fertility rates among blacks proved the futility of birth control, Sanger used her Harlem case studies to refute the point.”

Still, Sanger was unquestionably an ableist. And even though ableism was widespread in her time, Planned Parenthood would certainly be justified to distance itself and the reproductive rights movement from Sanger to send an anti-ableist message.

Planned Parenthood has no obligation to glorify Sanger and keep her name on buildings. But abandoning its past efforts to correct misperceptions about Sanger’s views on racial equality may have repercussions. For decades, opponents of Planned Parenthood have tried to not only brand Sanger a racist, but to falsely claim she pioneered the movement for legal birth control and abortion in order to eliminate the black race.

Such smears don’t just happen on fringe websites. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — in an opinion written two years ago regarding a case involving a law banning women from getting abortions on the basis of the fetus’ race, sex or potential disability — wrote an extended critique of Sanger and eugenics that heavily suggested she had racist intent. Thomas included a 1939 statement from Sanger that is often quoted out of context: “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”

When she wrote that in a letter to a colleague, Sanger was embarking on an effort to promote birth control in southern African American communities, and she was expressing worry that if the effort didn’t include black doctors, their project would inadvertently feed unfounded fears. (As described in Planned Parenthood’s new online history of itself, “Sanger lost control of the project, and Black women were sent to white doctors for birth control and follow-up appointments, deepening the racist and paternalistic problems of health care in the South.”) In fact, Sanger once rejected money from a racist who did want to stop African American reproduction. “When we first started out an anti-Negro white man offered me $10,000 if I started in Harlem first,” Sanger told the Chicago Defender. “His idea was simply to cut down the number of Negroes. ‘Spread it as far as you can among them,’ he said. That is, of course, not our idea. I turned him down.”

When you see all the evidence that Sanger rejected white supremacy, opposed discrimination and worked to overcome segregation, it’s easier to show how such statements are taken out of context. But when Planned Parenthood inaccurately suggests Sanger was a racist, putting statements in context becomes much harder. That doesn’t just damage Sanger’s reputation, it damages the efforts to prove the past and present goals of the reproductive rights movement are not intrinsically racist.

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