Reproductive rights were unheard of in the United States in the early 20th century as a result of heavy stigmatization. Hardly any lawmakers supported it - until Margaret Sanger’s involvement in birth control clinics that have now evolved into Planned Parenthood.
However, the wide influence of Planned Parenthood today tends to cover up Sanger’s controversial past.
Sanger was born in New York in 1879 to a Catholic family. Soon after attending nursing school and starting her own family, she began her crusade for women’s rights and began treating women for failed abortions in the early 1910s. She then started writing in feminist journals advocating for birth control but was forced to flee to England for several years after running into legal troubles over her publication.
Once she returned to America in 1915, she was arrested for illegally giving women guidance on contraceptives. She served 30 days in jail and later appealed the case, and the judge allowed doctors to provide contraceptives to women for medical reasons.
Sanger did not let these obstacles hold her back, and to the shock of many lawmakers, opened America’s first birth control clinic in 1916. She founded the American Birth Control League (forerunner to what is now Planned Parenthood) and was hailed as a hero by low-income women and minorities.
For the first time in America, women could more easily access birth control instead of having to depend on dangerous methods that often resulted in physical and psychological damage. Her early work sparked the pro-choice movement that had previously been generalized as extremely radical.
Sanger is praised today as the person who pioneered contraceptive rights to American women. However, not many people are well informed of Sanger’s controversial and racist ideas. Sanger was an avid supporter of the practice of eugenics, a movement that promotes the creation of a superior, more desirable population through selective breeding.
In a famous 1921 speech, Sanger connected her support of eugenics to racial discrimination, when she openly encouraged that society should try and prevent poor, lower-class (specifically targeting the black community) people from reproducing due to her fear that this would tarnish society’s reputation and diminish white supremacy.
Two years before, in 1919, Sanger had openly stated in her magazine The Birth Control Review,
“While I personally believe in the sterilization of the feeble-minded, the insane and syphilitic, I have not been able to discover that these measures are more than superficial deterrents when applied to the constantly growing stream of the unfit.”
These shocking comments now prove that perhaps Sanger wasn’t as pro-choice as she acted because nowadays the right to choose extends to all women, including those who Sanger thought were “feeble-minded”.
Sanger continued her promotion of eugenics and went on to demonstrate further belief in racism. She even attended a Ku Klux Klan rally where she shared her ideas on eugenics with the women there. Some have argued that Sanger purposely and strategically placed her birth control clinics around Black and Hispanic communities not to provide extra access to low-income women, but rather to promote her hidden agenda of eugenics by allowing easy access to birth control which could discourage them from giving birth at all.
Opposers of Planned Parenthood have also frequently mentioned her fight to provide much more birth control knowledge and abortions to what she referred to as members of “inferior races” including Blacks and Latinos, instead of catering to the white middle class. However, current Planned Parenthood leaders have refuted this argument, stating instead that she made the right choice to provide special attention to those communities since they are typically not as well informed as white women in the middle/upper class.
While defending Sanger’s impactful work to make birth control more accessible, Planned Parenthood leaders have also publicly recognized her harmful views of eugenics and brought attention to her flaws.
Planned Parenthood of Greater New York recently announced their plan to remove Sanger’s name from a health center in Manhattan, which is a step towards showing the public that even though Sanger might have had good intentions at the time, the current generation will continue to hold her accountable for her ideology. The debate continues to this day over Sanger’s real intentions.
Undoubtedly so, Margaret Sanger has left a profound impact on birth control and abortion awareness and sparked the movement that has led to the current influence of Planned Parenthood. While her accomplishments should not be overlooked, her controversial views continue to encourage open debate over how Planned Parenthood’s current purpose was heavily influenced by a racist and privileged woman.
Written by Kareena Agni