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The Long History of Using Margaret Sanger to Attack Planned Parenthood

Right-wing Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has become the latest anti-abortion figure to use Margaret Sanger as a reason to smear the medical practice under the guise of concern for Black Americans.

In a July 12 2022 hearing, Lee seized on an often-repeated statistic, attributed to a study conducted to the New York City Health Department, saying that between 2012 and 2016, “Black mothers aborted 136,426 babies while giving birth to only 118,127 babies.”

“This shouldn’t come as a surprise as you consider that Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger was a big fan of eugenics,” Lee added. “And her plans were not what anyone would want to defend today on that front. She’s someone who wanted to, quote-unquote, ‘assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.’ These are not laudable goals.”

Lee’s remarks are part of a long line of attempts to demonize Planned Parenthood in particular and reproductive health in general, using Sanger — who was herself disavowed by Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, which removed her name from a facility in Manhattan in 2020.

Karen Seltzer, who chairs the group’s board, said in a statement that it was a “necessary and overdue step” to reckon with Sanger’s legacy.

“Margaret Sanger’s concerns and advocacy for reproductive health have been clearly documented, but so too has her racist legacy,” Seltzer said. “There is overwhelming evidence for Sanger’s deep belief in eugenic ideology, which runs completely counter to our values at PPGNY. Removing her name is an important step toward representing who we are as an organization and who we serve.”

The claim that Sanger herself was motivated by anti-Black racism dates back to Linda Gordon’s 1976 book Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, a Social History of Birth Control in America, which quotes her as saying:

The mass of significant Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes, even more than among whites, is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear children properly.

The Long History of Using Margaret ...
The Long History of Using Margaret Sanger to Attack Planned Parenthood

However, the original version of that quote came from activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote in a 1932 article for the Birth Control Review:

Today, among this class of Negroes, few men marry before thirty, and numbers of them after forty. The marriage of women of this class has similarly been postponed.

In addition to this, the low incomes which Negroes receive make bachelorhood and spinsterhood widespread, with the naturally resultant lowering, in some cases, of sex standards. On the other hand, the mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes, even more than among whites, is from that part of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their childen properly.

Bloggers have also falsely claimed that Sanger referred to Black people as “human weeds” in her 1922 book The Pivot of Civilization; that description does not appear in the book.

A separate quote from Sanger, taken from a letter she wrote in December 1939, has also been taken out of context online in order to accuse Sanger of specifically targeting Black Americans:

We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.

As Reuters reported in May 2022, Sanger was arguing that Black patients could benefit from being treated by Black doctors:

It seems to me from my experience where I have been in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table which means their ignorance, superstitions and doubts. They do not do this with the white people and if we can train the Negro doctor at the clinic he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching effects among the colored people. His work in my opinion should be entirely with the Negro and the nurses, hospital, social workers, as well as the County’s white doctors. His success will depend upon his personality and his training by us.

The minister’s work is also important and he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.

The Washington Post reported in 2011 that academic analysis also found no indication that Planned Parenthood’s initial mission included targeting Black communities in particular:

For instance, Jessie May Rodrique, in a dissertation for the University of Massachusetts examining the 1918-1942 period, concluded: “Afro-Americans of all classes not only supported the idea of birth control but were also a significant force in shaping the national birth control debate, educating their communities and delivering contraceptives to women … While the black and white communities often worked together to provide services to black women in many locations throughout the country, Afro-Americans worked independently of the national, white dominated birth control organizations.”

Another dissertation — published as the book “Birth Control on Main Street,” by Cathy Moran Hajo — found that in the 1916-1939 period, white activists were more likely to exclude African Americans from clinics, rather than include them. There were some half-hearted efforts to create African American clinics, but white activists actually gave little or no assistance. “Whatever the activists’ personal beliefs about race may have been, there was no grand program to exterminate nonwhites or the poor,” Hajo concluded.

Planned Parenthood has also noted that Sanger’s efforts won her support from Black activists and leaders, such as Du Bois and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The racism of social policy at the time and the prevalent paternalistic attitudes that caused some philanthropists to try to metaphorically ‘lift up’ the voices of African Americans may have influenced Sanger,” the group said in a statement. “But there is no evidence that Sanger, or the Federation, intended to coerce Black women into using birth control.”

Update 7/13/2022, 4:09 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -ag