Margaret Sanger, Founder of Planned Parenthood, In Her Own Words: Eliminating the “Feeble-Minded”

margaretsanger12

SERIES INTRO

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 these articles, 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 clearly by her own words in an earlier 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, as we see plainly in the following quote:

“Birth control itself, often denounced as a violation of natural law, 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.” (WNR P.151)

In fact, after reading her two books, one can argue Sanger’s eugenic philosophy is the driving force of her life’s work, as it is a major theme weaved throughout all the ideas of both books.

READ: Margaret Sanger, Founder of Planned Parenthood, In Her Own Words:

(1) Eugenics, Elimination of the Unfit

(2) On Charity to the Poor

Margaret Sanger

WHO ARE THE “FEEBLE-MINDED”?

Sanger uses the phrase “feeble-minded” regularly in her books, placing the feeble-minded in with those she calls the “unfit” to pass on their genes. She is plainly speaking of people with cognitive disabilities and impaired mental capacity, such as those with Down Syndrome. She states,

“Mental defect and feeble-mindedness are conceived essentially as retardation, arrest of development, differing in degree so that the victim is either an idiot, an imbecile, feeble-minded or a moron, according to the relative period at which mental development ceases.” (PC Loc 1880)

Yet, the reader is left unsure if she would consider anyone with a low IQ as being part of the feeble-mined unfit, as it seems she may.

Sanger’s ideas lead to an obvious moral dilemma: Who decides who is smart enough to reproduce? Where is the line drawn to say, “Anyone under this level of intelligence is unfit to breed”?

ONCE AGAIN, IT’S ALL ABOUT EUGENICS

Chapter IV of The Pivot of Civilization is actually titled “The Fertility of the Feeble-Minded,” where she speaks of “the menace of feeble-mindedness to the race” (PC Loc 778). (To be clear, when Sanger speaks of “race” she is usually speaking of the human race.)

She starts the chapter this way:

“There is but one practical and feasible program in handling the great problem of the feeble-minded. That is, as the best authorities are agreed, to prevent the birth of those who would transmit imbecility to their descendants.” (PC Loc 705)

After stating that the fertility of the feeble-mined are “abnormally high,” she states, “Modern conditions of civilization, as we are continually being reminded, furnish the most favorable breeding- ground for the mental defective, the moron, the imbecile” (PC Loc 707).

To support this idea, she goes on to quote someone named Davenport who refers to the feeble-minded as “members of a weak strain,” which modern governmental systems not only allow, but assist in reproducing. The quote ends as follows: “… so the stupid work goes on of preserving and increasing our socially unfit strains” (PC Loc 711).

Sanger is not just an advocate of government-enforced control denying the “feeble-minded” and others she deems “unfit” from reproducing, but also of denying the “unfit” a political voice.

She quotes Dr. Walter E. Fernald to support her view: “…We now have state commissions for controlling the gipsy-moth and the boll weevil, the foot-and-mouth disease, and for protecting the shell-fish and wild game, but we have no commission which even attempts to modify or to control the vast moral and economic forces represented by the feeble-minded persons at large in the community.” (PC Loc 728)

“Equality of political power has thus been bestowed upon the lowest elements of our population. We must not be surprised, therefore, at the spectacle of political scandal and graft, of the notorious and universally ridiculed low level of intelligence and flagrant stupidity exhibited by our legislative bodies.” (PC Loc 1452)

As you’ll see in the last two quotes below, denial of a political voice in a democratic system isn’t the worst idea Sanger supports when it comes to the “unfit.”

women&newrace

IN HER OWN WORDS

With that, I’ll allow Sanger to continue to speak for herself…

“Only 34,137 of these unfortunates [feebleminded and other defectives] were under institutional care in the United States in 1916, the rest being free to propagate their kind – piling up public burdens for future generations. The feebleminded are notoriously prolific in reproduction. The close relationship between poverty and ignorance and the production of feebleminded is shown by Anne Moore, Ph.D., in a report to the Public Education Association of New York in 1911. She found that children in New York schools came from large families living in overcrowded slum conditions, and that only a small percentage were born of native parents.” (WNR P.31)

“Modern studies indicate that insanity, epilepsy, criminality, prostitution, pauperism, and mental defect, are all organically bound up together and that the least intelligent and the thoroughly degenerate classes in every community are the most prolific… there is truly, as some of the scientific eugenists have pointed out, a feeble-minded peril to future generations— unless the feeble-minded are prevented from reproducing their kind.” (PC Loc 719)

She quotes Dr. Tredgold, who says feeble-minded women “constitute a permanent menace to the race…” (PC Loc 755).

Sanger’s attention turns to the idea of the “so-called ‘good'” or harmless feeble-minded (PC Loc 778). Her response to this idea follows: “In such a reckless and thoughtless differentiation between the “bad” and the “good” feeble-minded, we find new evidence of the conventional middle-class bias that also finds expression among some of the eugenists. We do not object to feeble-mindedness simply because it leads to immorality and criminality; nor can we approve of it when it expresses itself in docility, submissiveness and obedience. We object because both are burdens and dangers to the intelligence of the community. As a matter of fact, there is sufficient evidence to lead us to believe that the so-called “borderline cases” are a greater menace than the out-and-out “defective delinquents” who can be supervised, controlled and prevented from procreating their kind.” (PC Loc 782).

“The presence in the public schools of the mentally defective children of men and women who should never have been parents is a problem that is becoming more and more difficult, and is one of the chief reasons for lower educational standards.” (PC Loc 791)

“The emergency problem of segregation and sterilization must be faced immediately. Every feeble-minded girl or woman of the hereditary type, especially of the moron class, should be segregated during the reproductive period. Otherwise, she is almost certain to bear imbecile children, who in turn are just as certain to breed other defectives.” (PC Loc 863)

“… we prefer the policy of immediate sterilization, of making sure that parenthood is absolutely prohibited to the feeble-minded.” (PC Loc 867)

Yes, you read those last two quotes correctly; Sanger favored forced segregation and sterilization of “[e]very feeble-minded girl” and every women who might pass on “feeble-mindedness” to their children. It’s interesting to note she proposes this for those “especially of the moron class;” one wonders what class of people this is referring to. If one reads her books, it’s not too hard to figure out.

For further insight and more quotes from Sanger herself, see our other articles: Margaret Sanger, Founder of Planned Parenthood, In Her Own Words:

(1) Eugenics, Elimination of the Unfit

(2) On Charity to the Poor

Sources:

WNR = Women and the New Race, Margaret Sanger (Figgy Tree Publishers, 2016). Originally published in 1920.

PC = The Pivot of Civilization, Margaret Sanger (A Public Domain Book. Kindle Edition.) Originally published in 1922.
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Margaret Sanger, Founder of Planned Parenthood, In Her Own Words: On Charity to the Poor

Sanger-Pivotof Civil

SERIES INTRO

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…

Birth Control Review, November, 1923.

Birth Control Review, November, 1923.

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)

SourceThe Pivot of Civilization, Margaret Sanger (A Public Domain Book. Kindle Edition.) Originally published in 1922.

READ: Margaret Sanger, Founder of Planned Parenthood, In Her Own Words: Eugenics, Elimination of the Unfit

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Margaret Sanger, Founder of Planned Parenthood, In Her Own Words: Eugenics, Elimination of the Unfit

Margaret Sanger

INTRO

As most know, Planned Parenthood is a controversial organization because their name is intimately connected with abortion, but a little less known is 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 article, 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).

The main ideas of both books are simple enough: Birth control is the key to ending the ills of society. Where contraception was a vastly more controversial subject in Sanger’s day, today the use of contraceptives, such as condoms or “the pill,” is widely accepted, and Sanger was certainly a driving force in this cultural change. Sanger’s basic stance is that making contraceptives available to families and cutting down on unplanned pregnancies would not only improve the life of individual families but of society as a whole.

Sanger’s bombastic, hyperbolic language in both works is often laughable, and the scope of the picture she paints of a utopian society all brought about simply by the availability of birth control is naive. For example, she writes birth control will end “Child slavery, prostitution, feeblemindedness, physical deterioration, hunger, oppression and war will disappear from the earth.” (WNR P.154) 

But there is much more to Sanger’s beliefs that contributes to the controversy surrounding her legacy. It is 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.

 

WHAT IS EUGENICS?

Sanger explains in The Pivot of Civilization (PC): “Eugenics has been defined as ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either mentally or physically.” (PC Loc 1387) Unlike socialism, she writes, which tries to fix “the evil effects of our industrial and economic system,” “Eugenics is the attempt to solve the problem from the biological and evolutionary point of view.” (PC Loc 1391)

In Angela Franks’ book Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility (MSEL), Franks gives us more insight into eugenics: “Positive eugenics entailed encouraging the ‘fit’ to have more children and thus to perpetuate their good genes. Negative eugenics was concerned with limiting, either by persuasion or by force, the reproduction of the ‘unfit’ and thus halting the perpetuation of their genes within the human gene pool.” (MSEL Loc 570)

Sanger is a “negative” eugenist in that she sees birth control (including sterilization and abortion) as the means to a greater human race and a wholesale solution to all the ills of the world.

Franks continues, “Eugenicists designated as ‘unfit’ those they considered threats to the genetic integrity of humanity, including the poor, the physically disabled, the sickly, epileptics, alcoholics, those with impaired mental capacity, real or imagined (broadly designated the ‘feeble-minded,’ further distinguished as ‘idiots,’ ‘imbeciles,’ or ‘morons’) (MSEL Loc 572). Franks is correct to lump Sanger in with the type of eugenicist described above, as these terms are used regularly by Sanger in her books to describe those who should not reproduce, “the unfit” (as we’ll see below).

Chapter 18 of her book Women and the New Race is titled “The Goal,” which clearly explains the aim of eugenics: “[T]he creation of a new race… a greater race… evolutionary progress… a strong race” (WNR P.150-151). To be clear, when Sanger speaks of a new race or a better race, the context of her books clearly means a new or greater human race. Though many eugenicists were racists (the Nazis being the most notorious eugenicists of them all) eugenicists are not necessarily racist and not all eugenicists were. (Whether Sanger was a racist, perhaps we’ll explore in a later article.)

Sanger writes, “Birth Control which has been criticized as negative and destructive, is really the greatest and most truly eugenic method, and its adoption as part of the program of Eugenics would immediately give a concrete and realistic power to that science. As a matter of fact, Birth Control has been accepted by the most clear thinking and far seeing of the Eugenists themselves as the most constructive and necessary of the means to racial health.” (PC Loc 1532)

women&newrace

SANGER & EUGENICS: IN HER OWN WORDS

Now that we understand eugenics, I’ll leave my comments to a minimum and allow Sanger to speak for herself.

From Women and the New Race:

“Over one-fourth of all the immigrants over fourteen years of age, admitted during the two decades preceding 1910, were illiterate. Of the 8,398,000 who arrived in the 1900-1910 period, 2,238,000 could not read or write. There were 1,600,000 illiterate foreigners in the United States when the 1910 census was taken. Do these elements give promise of a better race? Are we doing anything genuinely constructive to overcome this situation?” (P.26)

“The most serious evil of our times is that of encouraging the bringing into the world of large families. The most immoral practice of the day is breeding too many children.” (P.40)

“The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” (P.44)*

(*Planned Parenthood has tried to write off the above comment by Sanger as her being ironic. I find no hint of irony in the context where the comment appears. Where I find no problem with encouraging (morally ethical) contraception to control unplanned pregnancy if one cannot provide for children, Sanger does not just condemn large families among the poor but also among the rich. In other words, the whole argument of this 5th chapter of Women and the New Race is that large families, whether poor or rich, are immoral, as is apparent by the title of the chapter: The Wickedness of Creating Large Families.)

“…Or we can accept the third, sane, sensible, moral and practicable plan of birth control. We can refuse to bring weak, the helpless and the unwanted children into the world.” (P.110)  

“Birth control itself, often denounced as a violation of natural law, 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.” (P.151)

 

From The Pivot of Civilization:

“On the contrary, the most urgent problem to-day is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism.” (Loc 284)

“Surely it is an amazing and discouraging phenomenon that the very governments that have seen fit to interfere in practically every phase of the normal citizen’s life, dare not attempt to restrain, either by force or persuasion, the moron and the imbecile from producing his large family of feeble-minded offspring.” (Loc 838)

“The emergency problem of segregation and sterilization must be faced immediately. Every feeble-minded girl or woman of the hereditary type, especially of the moron class, should be segregated during the reproductive period. Otherwise, she is almost certain to bear imbecile children, who in turn are just as certain to breed other defectives.” (Loc 863)

“The result has been the accumulation of large urban populations, the increase of irresponsibility, and ever-widening margin of biological waste.” (Loc 1111)

“Mental defect and feeble-mindedness are conceived essentially as retardation, arrest of development, differing in degree so that the victim is either an idiot, an imbecile, feeble-minded or a moron, according to the relative period at which mental development ceases.” (Loc 1880)

“The statistics indicate at any rate a surprisingly low rate of intelligence among the classes in which large families and uncontrolled procreation predominate. Those of the lowest grade in intelligence are born of unskilled laborers (with the highest birth rate in the community); the next high among the skilled laborers, and so on to the families of professional people, among whom it is now admitted that the birth rate is voluntarily controlled.” (Loc 1941)

“Every single case of inherited defect, every malformed child, every congenitally tainted human being brought into this world is of infinite importance to that poor individual; but it is of scarcely less importance to the rest of us and to all of our children who must pay in one way or another for these biological and racial mistakes.” (Loc 2189)

“In passing, we should here recognize the difficulties presented by the idea of ‘fit’ and ‘unfit.’ Who is to decide this question? The grosser, the more obvious, the undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind.” (Loc 1473)

Sanger-Pivotof Civil

Sanger brings up a great point above: Who is to decide what people are fit or unfit to reproduce? Who designates the “racial mistakes” and “biological waste”?  Who ought to hold the power to decide what person should “not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind”?

We can see by her own words Sander wasn’t just motivated by alleviating poverty or promoting women’s rights, but also by who should or shouldn’t be “breeding” according to her eugenic philosophy.

Sources:

WNR = Women and the New Race, Margaret Sanger (Figgy Tree Publishers, 2016). Originally published in 1920.

PC = The Pivot of Civilization, Margaret Sanger (A Public Domain Book. Kindle Edition.) Originally published in 1922.

MSEL = Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility, Angela Franks (McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2005. Kindle Edition.)

Recommended Reading:

Sanger_EugenicsBook