Margaret Sanger, eugenics, and the crusade against Planned Parenthood
The latest maneuver in the war against Planned Parenthood (and its services around abortion, contraception, and women's health services) is a move to have a bust of Sanger removed from the National Portrait Gallery.A group of ministers lead by former Republican politician E.W. Jackson and the conservative non-profit ForAmerica say their opposition to the bust is based on Sanger’s support of eugenics, a social movement that sought to remove undesirable traits from the gene pool through sterilization and selective breeding. Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica, told the AP that Sanger believed eugenics could be used to “sterilize out of existence the poor, the blacks.”Republican politicians have echoed these claims. Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas have written a letter to lawmakers that calls the sculpture’s display by the museum “an affront both to basic human decency and the very meaning of justice.”'
It's important to remember that eugenics was, in the early 20th century, widespread among the intelligentsia and upper class of the US (and Europe, for that matter). The idea of encouraging procreation amongst the "most fit" (based on various fuzzy criteria) and discouraging (or even preventing) procreation among the "least fit" (ditto) was practically taken for granted by policy-makers and pundits alike.
The specific targets for eugenics were all over the map. Sometimes it was overtly (or covertly) racial. Sometimes it was focused on poverty (again, often with ethnic and racial overtones), as material success was clearly a sign of "fitness"; this sometimes included sterilizing orphans / wards of the state. Sometimes it was couched as being about preventing "mental idiocy" -- many US states (led by California and North Carolina, and supported by the Supreme Court) had laws for the forced sterilization of men and women who were mentally ill or learning disabled -- the "epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded," and organizations promoted institutions for such people that were intentionally segregated by sex to avoid any furthering of their bloodlines.
Physical disabilities were also targeted, such as deafness. Forced sterilization of aggressive criminals, sex offenders, deviants, and other "moral delinquents" was not uncommon. Immigration reform started including various tests to keep out the illiterate (especially from "inferior stock" non-Anglo-Saxon countries) and mentally deficient.
You can still hear its echoes today amongst those folk who complain about how Those People breed like rabbits, are creating generations of dependency, are threatening to overwhelm good American culture by sheer numbers.
While most of the eugenics activity we condemn today was negative, there were "positive" eugenics movements, seeking to "improve the breed" -- promoting more births among "desirable" groups (racial, economic), and establishing "better baby" and "fitter family" criteria.
As noted, this was a pretty popular sentiment of the era. Americans who expressed support for eugenics principles included Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., WEB DuBois, Alexander Graham Bell, Luther Burbank, John D. Rockefeller, John Kellogg, Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller (!), Herbert Hoover, Linus Pauling, and numerous scientists, academics, and politicians (over in the UK, folk like Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, William Inge, H G Wells, Havelock Ellis, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes were supporters in their own country for various eugenics concepts). Funding for eugenics movements came from organizations like the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune. Respected universities taught courses in it. Various civil rights groups also supported eugenics of one sort or another at various times, including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the NAACP, and the National League of Women Voters.
So what, then, about Margaret Sanger in this context.
While Sanger, like so many of others of the era, sought to "assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit," she was determined that this was to be a personal choice, no something imposed by law, noting "eugenists imply or insist that a woman's first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her duty to the state." Her focus was on preventing unwanted children from being born into a disadvantaged life -- preferably through free access to birth control methods. (The "don't have kids if you can't afford them" is, except in Catholic circles, not all that radical of a concept, even among conservatives when welfare checks are at stake.)
But where that wasn't practical, she saw voluntary sterilization as a worthwhile tool, and for the "profoundly retarded" and "undeniably feeble-minded" she supported compulsory sterilization, along with those. Regarding immigration, she urged exclusion of those "whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feeble-minded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924." She also suggested that those with incurable, hereditary disabilities be encouraged (with a pension) to be sterilized, or else be given farmland to segregate them from the rest of the population. (She also felt life on segregated farms would be helpful to improve the "moral conduct" of "illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends.")
[See also http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/webedition/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=129036.xml
Unlike some eugenics supporters, Sanger condemned euthanisia, and denounced Nazi eugenics programs.
Were these ideas all cool things? Certainly not by modern standards, though they were completely in line with the mores of the time. But Sanger's emphasis on voluntary
birth control as a means for individual women to manage the economic disruption of children strikes me as both laudable and sane, and is generally accepted today as much as it was controversial during her lifetime. Her emphasis on health measures as a basis for domestic and international peace are also noteworthy.
To suggest that Margaret Sanger was out to "sterilize out of existence the poor, the blacks" is completely unfounded; her closest goal, and one I think most would applaud, was to remove poverty
through providing family planning options to the poor. Suggesting that she should be dropped from the National Portrait Gallery, when other eugenics supporters like Holmes, Bell, Roosevelt, Pauling, and Churchill remain make it clear that there's an agenda beyond outrage over eugenics at work here.