Was Margaret Sanger Out To 'Control' The Black Population?
Correction: The audio above inaccurately describes the accusations against Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood’s critics say the video shows staff discussing the sale of fetal tissue, but Planned Parenthood says the tissue has been donated, not sold, and that only the organization’s costs have been covered. We regret the error.
To many, Margaret Sanger is the feminist leader and birth control advocate who founded the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. But that is not how Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson sees it.
Last week, the presidential candidate told Fox news that “she believed in eugenics” and she “was not particularly enamored with black people.” Those philosophies, he said, helped create Planned Parenthood, an organization that he believes puts most of its clinics in predominantly black neighborhoods to “control the population.”
Planned Parenthood disagrees with the characterization of their organization and its founder. Which representation is right? Who was Margaret Sanger? Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with historian Esther Katz about the philosophies and life of the Planned Parenthood founder.
Interview Highlights: Esther Katz
On Margaret Sanger’s activism
“Margaret Sanger was the leader of the American birth control movement and its most noted activist. She promoted reproductive rights for all women and believed women could not be free or equal unless they had all those rights.”
On why she started the American birth control movement
“She promoted reproductive rights for all women and believed women could not be free or equal unless they had all those rights.”
“She was a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan] and came across too many women that were having 10 or 15 children because they didn’t know how to control their reproduction. Many of the children died in infancy. In many cases the women died, either because of giving birth too often or because they tried to get abortions. And she was horrified by the fact that they didn’t have the knowledge with which to control their own pregnancies.”
On the goal of the American Birth Control League
“The goal of the American Birth Control League was to educate activists across the country who would then go to educate woman in knowledge of their own bodies and their reproduction. The goal was to help woman on the local level around the country set up clinics and to set up information centers.”
On Ben Carson’s characterization of Sanger as a eugenicist
“I think Mr. Carson should get to know Mrs. Sanger a little better, since he obviously doesn’t know either much about Mrs. Sanger or eugenics. The eugenics was a very broad movement. Some people believed that selective breeding could be used to improve the human race; other people just thought you could improve the human race by being careful about who reproduced so that those with inherited conditions would be discouraged from reproducing – those with biological or mental problems, again, that were genetic, should be discouraged from reproducing. Sanger came into the eugenics movement from the left. She never wanted to encourage any group to produce more people or any other group to produce less. She thought everybody should have fewer children… By defectives she meant those with mental or physical ailments – that is, they could be passed on. She meant biological defectives. In that way it’s an unfortunate term that she used. She never used that term in terms of black people or any other class of people.”
On Sanger’s relationship with the black community
“What Sanger understood was that birth control, until she came into the movement, was primarily class based… If you were poor, you didn’t have the access. What she wanted to do was make access and make opportunity equal.”
“Planned Parenthood locations were placed wherever they could get them. What Sanger understood was that birth control, until she came into the movement, was primarily class based. If you had the money you could get the doctor who would give you the knowledge or the contraception to allow you to decide when or whether to have children. If you were poor, you didn’t have the access. What she wanted to do was make access and make opportunity equal. If that meant going into poor neighborhoods or black neighborhoods, she was perfectly willing to do that. In fact, she started a bureau up in Harlem in 1930 with the support of leaders of the black community who were asking for this assistance.
“Leaders of the black community certainly admired Sanger and wanted her help. Everyone from W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King Jr. all asked for her help and she worked closely with leaders in the black community to provide the resources that the black community needed to allow women there to control the number of children that they had. And if they didn’t have access to it, she was anxious to provide that access, that education. She also understood that there would be some in the black community that would be uncomfortable discussing these things with white nurses and physicians, and so she encouraged black nurses and black physicians to provide this very intimate information.”
On Sanger as a ‘lightning rod’
“During her lifetime she was a lighting rod for anyone who opposed birth control, from a Catholic church to conservatives, and she becomes the same lighting rod today. Except that now she’s being used as a symbol for everything that’s wrong with the birth control movement, with the reproductive rights movement, with the abortion movement, and a lot is attributed to her that she just can’t claim responsibility for. It’s convenient.”
- Esther Katz, professor of history and director of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project. She tweets @estherkatz6.
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