A recent article on the progressive-leaning website Blood + Milk points out that “[t]he language we use when talking about birth control, especially as it relates to reproductive justice, is the result of a troubled history.” Connecting the dots between birth control’s origins and the eugenics and population control movements causes one name to stand out in that troubled history: Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Author Jesi Taylor Cruz writes, “Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League, Planned Parenthood’s precursor, was one of many who supported the early birth control movement and, unfortunately, aided racist elites in their project for population control.”
But Sanger didn’t just “aid” racist elites. She worked shoulder to shoulder with them. In 1920, Sanger remarked, “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.” In the October 1921 issue of her Birth Control Review, Sanger wrote, “Today Eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.” She also noted, “A few years ago this new weapon of civilization and freedom [birth control] was condemned as immoral, destructive, obscene. Gradually the criticisms are lessening-–understanding is taking the place of misunderstanding. The eugenic and civilizational value of Birth Control is becoming apparent to the enlightened and the intelligent.”
Perhaps most strikingly, she added, “the campaign for Birth Control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical in ideal, with the final aims of Eugenics.”
Those “final aims” were to ensure that certain people groups did not reproduce. Sanger made clear her position with the following words (emphasis added):
As an advocate of Birth Control, I wish to take advantage of the present opportunity to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the “unfit” and the “fit”, admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit though less fertile parents of the educated and well-to-do classes.
On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.
She further warned that “Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.”
As the Milk + Blood author laments, over time, Sanger and her contemporaries’ radical ideas spawned coercive, disastrous policies that impacted thousands of real women. Between 1930 and 1970, for example, approximately a third of poor Puerto Rican women were coercively sterilized. By 1976, over a quarter of indigenous American women had been sterilized by those who believed that sterilization was “a necessary public health intervention that would protect society from deleterious genes and the social and economic costs of managing ‘degenerate stock.” Furthermore, minority women were often guinea pigs for medical researchers, particularly for the early birth control pill that wreaked havoc on so many Puerto Rican women. Informed consent, of course, was either laughable or nonexistent for many of these women.
All in all, the article summarizes, “Poor, Black, and Brown women were often purposely misled, conned into confusing eugenics-based methods of population control for birth control. The merging of the eugenics movement with the women’s rights and early reproductive rights movements blurred lines and planted seeds of racial injustice in public policy.”
For decades, pro-life advocates have been drawing attention to Margaret Sanger’s eugenicist ideas and their disproportionate impact on the poor, the disabled, and minority women that is still being felt to this day. Her influence appears to live on at Planned Parenthood, as Black women in particular abort at disproportionately high rates. Blood + Milk acknowledged the “troubled history” of birth control’s origins. Will the next step be to grasp the troubled present?
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