As most know, Planned Parenthood is a controversial organization because their name is intimately connected with abortion, but known a little less is that Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) – defended by the organization as a “woman of heroic accomplishments,” – is also a controversial subject.
In this series, we’ll be letting Margaret speak for herself by looking at two written works by the founder of Planned Parenthood: Women and the New Race (1920) and The Pivot of Civilization (1922).
Though often ignored, it’s no matter of debate that Sanger was a believer and promoter of eugenics, and she lays out her thoughts on the subject in the two works mentioned above. Eugenics is an attempt to move the human race “forward” to a new level through biological and evolutionary means. Sanger’s version of eugenics was to control the reproduction of the “unfit” through birth control.
Where the main ideas of both books are simple enough: Birth control is the key to ending the ills of society, we saw plainly by her own words in the following article, Sanger wasn’t motivated by only alleviating poverty or promoting women’s rights, but also by who should or shouldn’t be “breeding” according to her eugenic philosophy.
Champion of the Poor?
What is striking is Sanger both appears to be concerned for the welfare of the poor while at the same time portraying the poor as a subhuman burden hampering the progress of the human race.
For example, in The Pivot of Civilization she speaks of how high fertility and, thus, high infant mortality is a characteristic of the poor. One may be under the impression that concern for the welfare of the poor may be her main motivation until she lumps the high fertility of the poor with “other anti-social factors detrimental to individual, national and racial welfare” (Loc 446). (To be clear, when Sanger uses terms like “racial welfare,” she is usually speaking of the human race.)
Sanger immediately continues, “The statistics which show that the greatest number of children are born to parents whose earnings are the lowest, that the direst poverty is associated with uncontrolled fecundity [the ability to produce an abundance of offspring] emphasize the character of the parenthood we are depending upon to create the race of the future” (Loc 446). In other words, keeping with her eugenic values, Sanger is saying that the future of the human race is in the hands of the poor because they produce the most children.
Sanger continues, “A distinguished American opponent of Birth Control some years ago spoke of the ‘racial’ value of this high infant mortality rate among the ‘unfit.’ He forgot, however, that the survival-rate of the children born of these overworked and fatigued mothers may nevertheless be large enough, aided and abetted by philanthropies and charities, to form the greater part of the population of to-morrow. As Dr. Karl Pearson has stated: ‘Degenerate stocks under present social conditions are not short-lived; they live to have more than the normal size of family'” (Loc 452).
Here, Sanger quotes another eugenist who apparently claimed the high infant morality rate of the poor (the “unfit”) would benefit the progress of the human race, but Sanger goes on to correct him that the survival rate of poor children is still considerable. Thus, she quotes Dr. Karl Pearson (who refers to the poor as “Degenerate stocks”) to back up what she says.
Furthermore, Sanger blames the survival of poor children on people and charities that help the poor. Look at it again:
“He forgot, however, that the survival-rate of the children born of these overworked and fatigued mothers may nevertheless be large enough, aided and abetted by philanthropies and charities, to form the greater part of the population of to-morrow.” (Loc 452)
Throughout The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger criticizes those who help the poor through charity instead of subscribing to her eugenic beliefs of controlling the poor’s reproduction through birth control.
For instance, in Chapter IV, Sanger names “Philanthropy and Charity” (Loc 875) as one of three things “which have resulted in biological chaos and human waste.” (Loc 881)
In fact, Chapter V is actually titled “The Cruelty of Charity” (Loc 915). Ironic to the current political climate of the U.S., the main argument would make many right-wing conservatives glow and the politically liberal-minded cringe, as it echoes current arguments against systematized welfare. The following quote does a good job of summing it up:
“Organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease. Those vast, complex, interrelated organizations aiming to control and to diminish the spread of misery and destitution and all the menacing evils that spring out of this sinisterly fertile soil, are the surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents. My criticism, therefore, is not directed at the “failure” of philanthropy, but rather at its success” (Loc 920).
With that, I’ll be silent and continue to let Sanger speak for herself…
In Her Own Words: On Charity
“They tacitly assume that all parenthood is desirable, that all children should be born, and that infant mortality can be controlled by external aid.” (Loc 467)
“the politicians are at one with the traditions of a civilization which, with its charities and philanthropies, has propped up the defective and degenerate and relieved them of the burdens borne by the healthy sections of the community, thus enabling them more easily and more numerously to propagate their kind.” (Loc 723)
“Organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease.” (Loc 920)
“When we learn further that the total number of inmates in public and private institutions in the State of New York—in alms-houses, reformatories, schools for the blind, deaf and mute, in insane asylums, in homes for the feeble-minded and epileptic—amounts practically to less than sixty-five thousand, an insignificant number compared to the total population, our eyes should be opened to the terrific cost to the community of this dead weight of human waste.” (Loc 953)
“Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those who should never have been born.” (Loc 2224)
Source: The Pivot of Civilization, Margaret Sanger (A Public Domain Book. Kindle Edition.) Originally published in 1922.
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