The Ethic of Control: Margaret Sanger, Eugenics, and Planned Parenthood


The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), despite coming under frequent attacks by pro-lifers, remains one of the most respected and well-funded organizations in the country. Add the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to the equation, and you’ve got a billion-dollar industry in human fertility. 

One would expect that the aims and agenda of such a huge organization would come under severe scrutiny, but Planned Parenthood has been immune from such questions, largely because its stated goals of population control and family planning are supposedly in agreement with America’s interests at home and abroad. But is PPFA’s stated agenda the whole story?
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One way of determining PPFA’s real agenda is to study its history. PPFA was founded with the establishment of the nation’s first birth-control clinic in 1916 by Margaret Sanger. The clinic was located in Brownsville, New York, a poor neighborhood of mostly Jews and Italians, establishing a pattern of targeting poor and minority populations for family planning. The organization went through various name changes — the American Birth Control League (ABCL), the Clinical Research Bureau, the National Committee for Federal Legislation for Birth Control (NCFLBC), the Birth Control Federation of America — before becoming Planned Parenthood in 1942.
Sanger’s motives in promoting birth control have often been questioned, by radical feminists and pro-lifers alike. Some feminists who otherwise support the “reproductive rights agenda” have taken issue with Sanger for selling out, maintaining that she abandoned her radical socialist background in order to court society women who helped her financially and socially. In so doing, some say Sanger allowed a misogynist medical profession to take over what should have been a women’s movement.
When Sanger is attacked by pro-lifers, they often attack her sexual life, arguing that she was fundamentally a sexual libertine fighting for respectability. While Sanger certainly wished for the freedom to carry on with her numerous lovers (the short list includes sexologist Havelock Ellis, writers H. G. Wells and Hugh de Salincourt, anarchist Lorenzo Portet, and architect Angus Snead McDonald), mere sexual self-absorption cannot adequately explain her tireless fixation on birth control. Sanger’s critics often invoke what they perceive as blatant racism on her part, but this approach leads to hasty and uncritical conclusions. Sanger made few statements that explicitly profess the superiority of one race over another; rather than racism, what is at issue is elitism, a more subtle — but just as dangerous — form of bigotry. This bigotry is shared by many of her contemporaries in what was called the “eugenics movement:” Ellis, Sanger’s mentor, was actively involved in establishing and supporting the Eugenics Education Society of England, and Sanger approvingly quoted eugenist, and later Nazi supporter, Harry H. Laughlin in her anthology The Case for Birth Control as saying, “Society must look upon germ-plasm as belonging to society, and not solely to the individual who carries it.”
Sanger’s elitist bigotry was the motivation for her birth control advocacy. Looked at as a whole, Sanger’s writings, speeches, and organizational connections with the eugenics movement all served the end of controlling the “unfit” — those determined by Sanger to be unable to manage their own childbearing behavior. What Sanger promulgated was an ethic of control.
Sanger’s involvement with eugenics was extensive. In her essay, “The Need of Birth Control in America,” published in Birth Control: Facts and Responsibilities, Sanger defines “what we mean by birth control today: hygienic, scientific, and harmless control of procreative powers [italics hers]. Thus comprehended, birth control places in our hands the key to that greatest of all human problems — how to reconcile individual freedom with the necessities of race hygiene.” This was indeed the central dilemma for Sanger, and she solved it by determining who was and was not worthy of “individual freedom,” in light of the race’s needs. Contemporary family planning advocates, under the rallying cry of “choice,” insist that they are only interested in the freedom part of the equation, but it seems the second factor weighs as heavily as ever, albeit under new names, such as the need to protect “society” or “the environment” or, more recently, “public genetic accountability.”
Sanger is responsible for such reasoning. In Woman and the New Race, she argues that women incur a “debt to society” through their thoughtless reproducing, “unknowingly creating slums, filling asylums with the insane, and institutions with other defectives.” Drawing on the pseudoscientific eugenic studies of her day, she compares “typical” small and large families in “The Need of Birth Control,” concluding that the latter group “is correlated for the most part with poverty, distress, tuberculosis, delinquency, mental defect, and crime. Poverty and the large family generally go hand in hand,” she concludes. “[T]his type is pari passu multiplying and perpetuating those direst evils which we must, if civilization is to survive, extirpate by the very roots.”
The phrase “this type” shows the ideology at work. A large family is the sign of being unfit. In Sanger’s world, the poor are poor because they are unfit, and they have large families because they are unfit. In the June 1917 issue of the Birth Control Review (which Sanger edited), she refers contemptuously to “the great horde of unwanted” that lacks the “courage to control its own destiny.” The real problem, she notes in The Pivot of Civilization, arises when “the incurably defective are permitted to procreate and thus increase their numbers.” At this point the state should interfere “either by force or persuasion.” She acknowledges that personal liberty is important, but in the present situation society must segregate and sterilize its undesirables. The “defective” must be controlled, even if as Sanger insists, it requires “drastic and Spartan measures.”
Sanger’s scapegoat was invariably the poor and uneducated. Yet, while Sanger herself made few racist statements, there are overtones of racism in her organizations. While she herself did not define eugenic “fitness” along racial lines, she attracted supporters who did, and she often published their statements without comment. For example, ABCL National Board member and eugenist C. C. Little notes, in the August 1926 issue of the Review, that racial problems are not as “acute” where he works in New England as they are in New York, where there is “an immense diversity of racial elements.” He continues, “I happen to be working in Maine, where the proportion of the old New England stock is very, very high… I don’t want to see that particular element in the situation mixed up…. I want to keep it the way a chemist would prize a store of chemically pure substances…” Obviously, in such a formulation, poor white Southerners fare as badly as blacks.
In fact, this sort of elitist bigotry was often an unspoken assumption. ABCL National Council member and eugenist Leon J. Cole, responding to a letter from Sanger about whether or not the ABCL should endorse forced sterilization, notes:
I think you will see that to my mind there is fully as much necessity of giving attention to means of restriction of propagation in this lower irresponsible stratum of society as there is of providing a means of voluntarily reducing the numbers born in the better classes. (I use these terms such as ‘better classes’ without definition as I know you will understand the way in which I intend them.)
The “restrictive measures… imposed by law” that the benevolent scientist recommends “are naturally sterilization and segregation.” Sanger devoted a whole issue (March 1928) to the former topic, stating, “sterilization as well as birth control has its place as an aim of the American Birth Control League.”
Such class-consciousness points to one important reason for promoting birth control for the unfit — the burden they place on what Sanger, in Pivot, called “the normal and healthy sections of the community.” She claims that the healthy classes unduly bear the costs of “those who should never have been born.” Indeed, Sanger’s movement only took off when the wealthy elite, including the eugenic Rockefeller Foundation, rallied to her side.
These elite often came into the birth control movement as a result of their eugenic interests. Planned Parenthood has argued that Sanger herself was not a eugenist, quoting an article in the February 1919 Review in which Sanger says, “Eugenists imply or insist that a woman’s first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state.” PPFA neglects to quote the title of the article in question, “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” and its first three sentences:
Before eugenists and others who are laboring for racial betterment can succeed, they must first clear the way for birth control. Like the advocates of birth control, the eugenists, for instance, are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit. Both are seeking a single end but they lay emphasis upon different methods [emphasis added].
The Pivot of Civilization explains Sanger’s position on eugenics in more detail. She disapproved only of “positive” eugenics — namely, encouraging the fit to reproduce more — simply because she did not believe in encouraging anyone to reproduce more. She did, however, approve wholeheartedly of “negative” eugenics: preventing the reproduction of the unfit by persuasion or force. The unfit were often portrayed as livestock, to be controlled and genetically manipulated by the eugenist — all in the name of human betterment. Consider another eugenic claim:
Since the inferior is always numerically superior to the best, the worst would multiply itself so much faster . . . given the same opportunity to survive and procreate… that the best would necessarily be pushed to the background. Therefore a correction in favor of the better must be undertaken.
Compared with earlier quotations, this statement seems mild. But once the reader realizes that this last quote is not from America’s own birth control crusader but from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, then the real threat of the unnamed eugenic “correction” — and of Sanger’s own negative eugenic program — becomes apparent. From such sentiments come genocidal dreams, even in America.
Ironically, that population which would suffer the worst effects of eugenic doctrine in this century, the Jews, didn’t see the writing on the wall. Dr. Hannah Stone, a Jewish physician who served as Sanger’s clinic director, and wrote in Eugenics, the journal of the American Eugenics Society (AES): “Not to unlimited procreation but rather to controlled propagation based upon a knowledge of the laws of genetics and eugenics must we look for the production of a superior race and a higher intellectual status.” Perhaps her lack of foresight was due to the elitist, as opposed to racist, overtones of American eugenics. Although racism certainly played a role, groups were usually designated “unfit” according to their perceived level of intelligence, morality, and income; poor black and Mexican minorities seemed to fall victim the most. Hence the great danger of elitism: Any dispossessed group can become its scapegoat.
In addition to her many eugenical statements, Sanger’s organizational connections to the eugenics movement are substantial. The people with whom she chose to surround herself were committed, often professional, eugenists. Of the ten people listed on the board of directors of the ABCL in the mid-1920s, at least half had made public eugenic statements. At least twenty-three of the fifty people on her national committee were involved at a prominent level in eugenics, either as board members of the AES or as known public supporters of the eugenics agenda. Sanger herself was a dues-paying member of the AES and listed the organization as one of three that, in 1932, publicly endorsed her NCFLBC. Further, pro-eugenics groups such as the Brush and Rockefeller Foundations provided funds for the ABCL. (Ironically, in 1914 Sanger had advocated the assassination of Rockefeller in her radical magazine, Woman Rebel.)
As Germaine Greer has pointed out in her Sex and Destiny, “Negative eugenics is not dead: It lingers in the corridors of the health establishment, emerging in swift guerrilla raids on the Hippocratic tradition.” A small cadre of feminists radical enough to criticize the mainstream feminist establishment (Greer, Linda Gordon, and Betsy Hartmann, for example) have challenged the common wisdom that contemporary family planning groups are acting out of a disinterested humanitarianism. While remaining, to varying degrees, pro-contraception and pro-abortion, these women have had the courage to point out the unspoken elitism and “crypto-eugenics” behind the seemingly benevolent fronts of organizations such as Planned Parenthood.
Many female patients of PPFA have realized that the “choice” that Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinics provide is really PPFA’s choice — the counselor’s choice whether or not she will inform the patient about the danger of post-abortion syndrome, the risks of sterility, or even alternatives to the procedure. One shell-shocked former patient of a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic wrote to the organization, saying, “I really wished I could have been told the relevant piece of information that I was carrying a life in being. There is a high probability that I would not have done the procedure.” Yet deciding against abortion is exactly what PPFA’s counseling intends to prevent the disadvantaged from doing.
Former PPFA president Pamela Maraldo insisted in 1993 that “Planned Parenthood has never strayed from the fundamental principles she [Sanger] espoused or from her determination to confront the glaring social and health needs of the day.” Indeed, the ethic of control continues to be imposed on our country and on much of the developing world by Sanger’s followers who choose to rid the world of the unfit.

This article originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Angela Franz

    Angela Franz has written widely on Planned Parenthood and abortion.

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