Margaret Sanger Was Against Abortion?
A few days ago I was speaking with a good friend of mine about Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League, which was renamed Planned Parenthood. The conversation shifted to Sanger as my friend, who is pro-choice, and I debated the issue of abortion. Sanger was quite relevant because we’re both African American and the founder of Planned Parenthood was, as is often pointed out by the right-to-life movement, an unequivocal white supremacist who saw eugenics as the means to weed out less “desirable” populations.
I forwarded my friend information about Sanger and the woman’s own words about a variety of matters. That is not why I’m writing this, however. Certain statements by Sanger are absolutely striking because they were statements I did not expect.
Statements such as this, found in a letter about the “Negro Project” were well expected:
We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. 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.
Or this, in a written statement to a congressional department:
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 feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.
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.
She also wrote:
It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization. For upon the foundation of an enlightened and voluntary motherhood shall a future civilization emerge.
Despite this, I’ve read Sanger opposed many methods advocated by other negative eugenicists, including euthanasia. This opposition was not on moral grounds, but on an ideological one. It was her view that birth control alone was sufficient to empower strong and knowledgeable women to produce “fit” children and it was unacceptable to have any eugenics project that put power in the hands of anyone other than those who actually give birth.
She said of this:
The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics…. We are convinced that racial regeneration, like individual regeneration, must come ‘from within.’ That is, it must be autonomous, self-directive, and not imposed from without.
… a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother… Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment.
This is almost verbatim pro-choice rhetoric about the absolute autonomy of women and their absolute right to choice in reproductive matters. Her commitment to the power of eugenics being in the hands of women was so non-negotiable, Sanger is on record opposing the violent eugenics of Nazi Germany.
But what struck me most were here moral statements. First, she addressed masturbation and her comments were based on her experience as a nurse.
In my experience as a trained nurse while attending persons afflicted with various and often revolting diseases, no matter what their ailments, I have never found any one so repulsive as the chronic masturbator. It would be difficult not to fill page upon page of heartrending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently, for even after they have ceased the habit, they find themselves incapable of any relief in the natural act. [...] Perhaps the greatest physical danger to the chronic masturbator is the inability to perform the sexual act naturally.
In the boy or girl past puberty, we find one of the most dangerous forms of masturbation, i.e., mental masturbation, which consists of forming mental pictures, or thinking obscene or voluptuous pictures. This form is considered especially harmful to the brain, for the habit becomes so fixed that it is almost impossible to free the thoughts from lustful pictures.
Then, the most inexplicable statement of all was this:
“While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.
In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger notes that her 1916 opposition to abortion was based on the taking of life:
“To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.”
So Planned Parenthood honors this woman, an unequivocal racist and eugenicist, as a trailblazer and hero of women, particularly poor and ethnic women, and the most noteworthy socio-political cause they champion [abortion], she opposed? The irony, if she did in fact oppose abortion.
 Margaret Sanger’s December 19, 1939 letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble, 255 Adams Street, Milton, Massachusetts
 Sanger, “A Plan For Peace”, Birth Control Review, April 1932, p. 106
 Sanger, What Every Boy and Girl Should Know, 1915, p. 140
 Margaret Sanger. “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda.” Birth Control Review, October 1921, p.5
 Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control and Racial Betterment.” The Birth Control Review, 3(2), p. 11-12
 Margaret Sanger, “What Every Girl Should Know”, 1920, pp. 39-40
 Sanger, Margaret (1938). Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 217.