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The Life and Crimes of Margaret Sanger III: Eugenics and Birth Control

Posted by Matthew McCusker on 28 September 2012

Margaret Sanger established the first birth control clinic in the United States of America at Brownsville, New York in 1916.

In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League to advocate for the adoption of artificial birth control at the level both of public policy and of individual practice.

She followed this in 1923 with the establishment of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau which was the first legal birth control clinic and a centre of research into contraceptive methods. In 1928 due to an internal conflict she resigned from the ABCL and took full control of the BCCRB. In 1929 she founded the National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control.

The ABCL and the BCCRB were reunited in 1939 as the Birth Control Federation of America, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. Sanger did not lead the merged organisation but she was responsible for the founding of the International Committee of Planned Parenthood in 1948 which became the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952. Sanger was its first President and held this position until 1959.

The above narrative alone demonstrates the extent of Sanger's commitment to the ideology of birth control. In the first part of this series we saw that Sanger was an advocate of sexual 'liberation' and saw contraception as a means of allowing women to pursue a promiscuous 'liberated' lifestyle while attempting to avoid the natural consequence of their behaviour. We have also seen, in Part II, that she came to adopt the Malthusian position that birth control was the only solution to the problem of poverty.

However Sanger had a much wider agenda than merely reducing the birth rate. She believed that a "qualitative factor as opposed to a quantitative one is of primary importance in dealing with the great masses of humanity1." In other words she saw the primary end of birth control as improving the 'quality' of the population rather than population reduction. In 1921 she stated that "The campaign for Birth Control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical in ideal with the final aims of Eugenics." She continued "The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective ... 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 sentimentalism2."

She considered certain human beings to be 'human weeds' who "clog up the path, drain up the energies and resources of this little earth3". On another occasion she regretted that while "nature eliminates the weeds ... we turn them into parasites and allow them to reproduce4." Such sentiments are not original. Sanger is here expressing opinions which were identical in substance to those of other prominent supporters of eugenics such as Francis GaltonH.G. Wells and Marie Stopes.

Margaret Sanger was a long term member and supporter of the American Eugenics Society and encouraged cooperation between organisations advocating eugenics and those advocating birth control. A majority of the AES's Committee on Eugenics and Dysgenics of Birth Regulation were in fact formally associated with Sanger organisations. A main aim of the eugenics movement at this time was to introduce forced sterilisation for those deemed 'defective'.

Sanger openly advocated that 'defectives' should be segregated or sterilised. She expressed her frustration that eugenic programmes were not being implemented more swiftly: "We know, without doubt, that certain groups should not reproduce themselves. Why not say so ... we cannot improve the race until we first cut down production of its least desirable members5." In her Plan for Peace, published in 1938, Sanger called for segregation, sterilisation, and what amounted to slavery and forced labour for the 'unfit':

  • d. to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.
  • e. to insure the country against future burdens of maintenance for numerous offspring as may be born of feebleminded parents, by pensioning all persons with transmissible disease who voluntarily consent to sterilization.
  • f. to give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.
  • g. to apportion farm lands and homesteads for these segregated persons where they would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives.

More than 30 American states practised compulsory sterilisation during the period from 1907 to 1964 leaving behind more than 63,000 victims whose suffering has never been adequately recognised. Around 60% of these sterilisations were performed on women, yet many of Sanger's feminist biographers have been willing to ignore her complicity in this system, lest it force themselves or their readers to challenge the notion that Sanger was a great 'liberator' of women.

An objective assessment of her published writings leaves no doubt that one of Sanger's primary aims in advocating birth control was bring about the creation of a future purified race that conformed more closely to those ideas of perfection that prevailed among her own circle. The freedom that Sanger advocated was merely the freedom to indulge in promiscuous sexual acts while frustrating their natural outcome. The freedom to pursue a normal family life was not something that Sanger recognised.

Indeed any woman who preferred raising a large family in the normal context of marriage was deemed for that very reason to be 'irrational' and unworthy of the vision of sexually liberated womanhood that Sanger had set before them. Her successors in the abortion industry today are still implementing a eugenic programme though they hide behind the rhetoric of 'choice'. Parents of children with disabilities are often put under enormous pressure to have their children killed in the womb with the result that, for example, 90% of children with Down's Syndrome are eliminated before birth.

In a society still dominated by the eugenic principles which have been propagated among us for more than a century what kind of 'choice' will most parents feel free to make?

See also

The Life and Crimes of Margaret Sanger Part I

The Life and Crimes of Margaret Sanger Part II: From Marx to Malthus

The Life and Crimes of Margaret Sanger Part IV: Eugenics and Race

1. Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization, 1922
2. Margaret Sanger 'The Eugenic Value of Birth Cotrol Propaganda', The Birth Control Review, October 1921
3. Margaret Sanger, 'The Need for Birth Control in America', Birth Control: Facts and Responsibilities ed. Adolf Meyer, 1925
4. Quoted in Angela Franks, Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy, p48
5. Taken from a letter written to leading eugenicist Frederick Osborn in 1939 and quoted in Franks, Sanger, p11-12

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