Margaret Louise Sanger (1879 – 1966) was a birth control, population control, and eugenics activist. She changed the world, but for the worse.
By 1911, Sanger had moved to New York City, where she became heavily influenced by anarchist, socialist, and labor activists. She began joining and participating in radical groups and causes.
In March 1914, Sanger published the first issue of her own paper, The Woman Rebel. Along with providing information about birth control, Sanger wholeheartedly supported the use of violence to achieve political, economic, and social goals. Case in point, the Lexington Avenue bombing. On July 4th of that year, a bomb accidentally exploded in a Harlem apartment, killing three men and one woman. The three men were planning to bomb the home of industrialist John D. Rockefeller, but the bomb exploded prematurely. The plan was devised at the Ferrer Center, an educational institution, which also served as the meeting place for a movement of radicals. Sanger lectured at the institution, and was active in the movement.
After the failed terrorist attempt, Sanger wrote a commentary, calling the deaths a display of “courage, determination, conviction, a spirit of defiance.” She argued the “real tragedy” was “the cowardice and the poisonous respectability” of the movement’s leaders who offered apologies, rather than defiance, for the episode. Sanger urged those in the movement to “accept and exult in every act of revolt against oppression,” including terrorist acts. She also published a complementary article that defended the assassination of political or industrial leaders.
The following month, August 1914, Sanger was indicted for inciting murder and assassination, and for violating obscenity laws. But instead of facing the charges, she fled the country. On the trip to England, after the ship had entered international waters, Sanger instructed her supporters to distribute 100,000 copies of her pamphlet, Family Limitation. In February 1916, the charges were dropped.
In October 1916, Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic. Located in Brownsville, New York, the clinic permanently closed a month later, after Sanger was charged with maintaining a public nuisance. In February 1917, she was convicted and given a thirty day prison sentence.
Also in February 1917, the first issue of Sanger’s journal, The Birth Control Review, was published. She was The Review’s editor until 1929, and used her editorials to promote birth control and eugenics. For Sanger, these issues were inseparable.
The word eugenics, which means well born, was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Positive eugenics was a movement that attempted to “improve” the human population by encouraging “fit” people to reproduce. Negative eugenics, conversely, attempted to “improve” the human population by discouraging “unfit” people from reproducing. The “unfit” people included the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the “feeble-minded,” the “idiots,” the “morons,” and the “insane.” And “discouragement” from reproducing included the use of force.
Sanger rejected positive eugenics, while embracing negative eugenics. She wrote, “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.” She stressed the need to merge eugenics with birth control, adding, “Eugenics without Birth Control seems to us a house builded upon the sands. It is at the mercy of the rising stream of the unfit.”
And Sanger advocated birth control backed up by forced sterilization or segregation to achieve her aims, writing, “While I personally believe in the sterilization of the feeble-minded, the insane and syphilitic, I have not been able to discover that these measures are more than superficial deterrents when applied to the constantly growing stream of the unfit. They are excellent means of meeting a certain phase of the situation, but I believe in regard to these, as in regard to other eugenic means, that they do not go to the bottom of the matter.” The bottom of the matter was “to create a race of thoroughbreds.” So the government, Sanger concluded, needed “to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring” and “to give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.”
In her 1920 book, Woman and the New Race, Sanger wrote that birth control “is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.”
She had a plan. And she was about to get an organization. In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which (following a 1939 merger with the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and then a 1942 name change) became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. While the organization was growing, the close association between the birth control movement and the eugenics movement had made a name change necessary. Nazi Germany had implemented racial hygiene policies, including mass sterilizations, inspired by the eugenics movement in America. So “birth control” was removed from the name to create a new public image. The agenda, though, stayed the same. And in 1948, Sanger helped form the International Committee on Planned Parenthood, which (in 1952) became the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Through it all, the underlying theme, eliminating the unfit, never changed. In her 1922 book, The Pivot of Civilization, she attacked charity as counterproductive, and dangerous, for helping the poor to produce even more “human waste.” (Sanger’s term for the children of the poor.) She wrote, “Organized charity is itself the symptom of a malignant social disease.” And, “Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks [of people] that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant.”
In a 1925 book, Birth Control: Facts and Responsibilities, Sanger contributed an essay, writing, “Birth Control is not merely an individual problem; it is not merely a national question, it concerns the whole wide world, the ultimate destiny of the human race. In his last book, Mr. [H.G.] Wells speaks of the meaningless, aimless lives which cram this world of ours, hordes of people who are born, who live, yet who have done absolutely nothing to advance the race one iota. 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 the resources of this little earth. We must clear the way for a better world; we must cultivate our garden.”
Then in 1926, Sanger spoke at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Silver Lake, New Jersey. Writing about the event in her autobiography, she highlighted its success, noting that “a dozen invitations to speak to similar groups” were offered.
And in 1939, Sanger went to work “cultivating the garden.” She initiated the Negro Project to weed out the unfit from the black population. In bringing birth control to the then largely poor (i.e. unfit) population of the South, with a few influential black ministers promoting the project as the solution to poverty, Sanger hoped to significantly reduce the black population. Martin Luther King, Sr., as the eldest son of nine children born into poverty in a family of sharecroppers, would have made the perfect target for “elimination.” But his birth had already taken place.
In her later years, Sanger still believed that there were people “who never should have been born at all.” In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, she said, “I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world – that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin – that people can – can commit.”
Sanger’s impact during her lifetime was highly negative, and included the cruelty of forced sterilization, which became a common practice. In America, over 60,000 people were sterilized against their will. And most occurred during the 1930s and 1940s when Sanger and the birth control and population control movements were pushing states hard to enact and enforce compulsory sterilization laws. Among the victims were the blind, the deaf, epileptics, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, and people with low IQs diagnosed as “feeble-minded.”
Sanger’s legacy today, which is being carried on by Planned Parenthood, includes the devastating impact of “birth control” on the black community. Planned Parenthood has continued the practice of targeting the black population. Over 30% of all abortions are performed on black women and close to 40% of black pregnancies end in abortion.
Planned Parenthood successfully created a public image of an organization working to help the poor, while hiding the reality that it targets the vulnerable. That was Sanger’s plan from the start.