It is accepted truth on the left that Margaret Sanger was a patron saint of feminism and all-things-good-in-the-world. It is accepted truth on the right that she was a vicious racist. There isn’t a more polarizing figure in all of politics, which in the era of Trump is saying something.
In this debate, there seems to be no middle ground between the two polar opposite positions, and neither side is willing to acknowledge any evidence that might moderate their view.
The quotes that are typically used to show Sanger’s possible racism are the following (although this is by no means an exhaustive list of her writings and speeches that seem to flirt with racism):
On page 108 of the April 1932 edition of Sanger’s magazine Birth Control Review, she wrote, “Birth control must ultimately lead to a cleaner race.” She often spoke of race, even naming one of her books Women and the New Race.
In a 1939 letter to fellow eugenics advocate Clarence Gamble, she wrote, “We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out the idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” Here, Sanger is writing about what she called her “Negro Project,” through which Sanger and other eugenicists were attempting to implement population control in communities of color. As her comments indicate, Sanger and others realized needed the support of black clergymen to be effective.
In 1926, she spoke to members of the Ku Klux Klan about eugenics and population control.
In her 1932 speech for to the New History Society, Sanger said that America must “keep the doors of Immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens 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.”
On the other hand, the progressive defenses of Sanger’s views may have some merit. When Sanger spoke of race, she may have been advocating the eradication of bad genes in general, not specifically some inferior race of people based on skin color. Sanger very well may have written that she didn’t “want word to get out that we want to exterminate the negro population,” because that’s not what she was trying to do. She may have gone to the KKK because they were an influential group and she wanted their backing, regardless of whether or not she agreed with their cause of racial supremacy. I actually have no idea how a progressive would defend her statements about immigrants, but I’m sure they’d find a way for that as well.
I think it’s safe to say that although she didn’t think highly of people of color, there does not seem to be enough strong evidence to claim that she was, or was not, racist. The evidence is ambiguous and to claim definitively either way is speculation.
What we do know with absolute certainty about Sanger is that she advocated for horrible things. When she writes in a 1923 article for The Thinker that “[Birth control] means the release and cultivation of the better elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extinction, of defective stocks—those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization,” both sides of the debate get caught up arguing whether or not by “human weeds” she is referring to people of color. Let’s say she wasn’t. She’s still referring to the “poor”, the “dysgenic”, the “imbecile” and the “criminal” as human weeds to be eliminated. Regardless of whether or not she was talking about specific ethnic groups, this is a patently inhumane thing to say.
In her speech to the New History Society, Sanger said that America should establish a population congress that would “apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” Whether she was referring specific ethnic groups for segregation and sterilization is beside the point – she was advocating for the compulsory segregation and sterilization of American citizens. Her plans were carried out in some areas to devastating effect.
Sanger wrote in Women and the New Race that “the most compassionate thing a large family can do to a small child is to kill it.” Regardless of how her supporters may attempt to justify such comments, attitudes like this are indicative of the incredibly dark worldview from which Sanger was operating.
The pro-life movement would do well to refrain from making the claim that Sanger was a racist, even if the evidence indicates that she likely was. Doing so gives abortion supporters plausible deniability to our argument and distracts everyone from the universal horror of Sanger’s ideas, whether or not they were rooted in racism. There’s no need for pro-lifers to make uncertain assumptions about the existence of racist motives. Putting charges of racism aside, Margaret Sanger, as the face of the eugenics movement, is among the most nefarious characters in American history.
If pro-lifers can stay away from debatable charges of racism and stick to the fact that Sanger spoke of the poor, disabled, criminal and illiterate as “human weeds,” campaigned to exterminate the lower class, and advocated, with some success, for some of the worst human rights violations since slavery, then Sanger’s supporters can go nowhere to hide from the truth.
James Silberman is a guest contributor to the FPIW Blog. He is a pro-life activist from Gig Harbor, WA, and a student at Whitworth University.