Margaret Sanger on race and eugenics

Planned Parenthood founder

“Human weeds.”

On Thursday, Dr. Angela Franks addressed attendees of the 2013 National Right to Life Convention in Dallas, Texas. She addressed the issue of Margaret Sanger’s eugenic history and clarified the controversial question of whether or not Margaret Sanger was a racist.


Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

Franks has done massive amounts of research on Margaret Sanger, her eugenic legacy, and the way that Sanger’s ideals have shaped the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which Sanger founded. She authored a book entitled Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy.

Margaret Sanger and eugenics:

Sanger was a “negative” eugenicist, which means that, rather than encouraging “healthy, fit” individuals to give birth to as many offspring as possible (this ideology is “positive” eugenics), she worked to ensure that those she considered “unfit” do not reproduce at all. Free will and desire, Franks points out, had little to do with whether a woman should reproduce, in Sanger’s view. In fact, free will and desire had so little to do with the decision to reproduce that Margaret Sanger openly approved of forced sterilization and birth control among those populations that she considered unfit.

Franks points out that Planned Parenthood has a troubling history of deflecting attention away from the fact that its founder had such anti-choice views on women’s fertility. Franks points out that Sanger could not have been considered pro-choice, precisely because of her view that certain women should not have a say in their own fertility.

Margaret Sanger and race:

Doesn’t Margaret Sanger’s eugenic outlook, wherein minorities were widely targeted, lead to a natural conclusion that she was a racist? Not necessarily. Franks acknowledges that Sanger surrounded herself with a number of unsavory characters – association with whom supports the theory that she was herself a racist. However, the actual archive of historical documents on Sanger, including the large body of her private and public writings that have come down to us today, is too narrow to definitively indicate that she was personally a racist.

She absolutely had a negative view towards the poor; Franks notes that there is no debate about that. Eugenicists are not always racists, however. “She talks endlessly about the poor, and about people with disabilities,” Franks noted. “She hardly ever talks about race.” There is one well-known incidence when Sanger directly addresses the issue of race, but in that letter it is unclear whether Sanger’s point of view is racist or whether she is trying to ensure that the black community did not get the wrong idea and think that her agenda was racist when in fact it was not.

Franks cautions: “Talk about what you know for sure is true about Margaret Sanger and race, but don’t get derailed trying to make a historical argument where there is not enough evidence.” Franks does acknowledge that Sanger was “clearly a bigot,” who was definitely biased against the poor. Most racial minorities in her day were impoverished, but the connection between race and Margaret Sanger is not historically backed enough to conclude that Margaret Sanger was a tried-and-true racist herself.

Why do people conflate racism with eugenics?

“The attitude of eugenics shades so easily into racism,” Franks acknowledges, “and it all centers to dehumanize the so-called unfit.” Sanger said: “Their lives are hopeless repetitions. All that they have said has been said before; all that they have done has been done better before. Such human weeds clog up the path, drain up the energies and resources of this little earth. We must clear the way for a better world; we must cultivate our garden” (The Need for Birth Control in America, 1925)

Franks says that we can conclude from this quote that, in addition to a bias against the poor and “unfit,” Sanger was even biased against ordinary people. She seems to have believed that only the extraordinary, “fit,” glamorous life had value. Every other life was subject to discrimination by Planned Parenthood’s history-altering founder.

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