Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger problem

By Sue Davis
August 19, 2020

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York issued a strong statement July 21 that condemned Margaret Sanger’s relationship with eugenics theory and practice. “By saying this, we disarm a tool anti-abortion opponents use to shame women of color, especially Black women, from seeking the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health care.”

The PPGNY statement noted that its move to acknowledge Sanger’s role in the eugenics movement was not just related to the national upsurge in the Black Lives Matter movement. “It was prompted and led by Black women who have been wary of Planned Parenthood’s origins.” (New York Times, July 21)

Foremost among Black reproductive justice leaders is Loretta Ross, one of the Black women who coined the term “Reproductive Justice” in 1994. The term was much needed because “reproductive rights” didn’t reflect people of colors’ intersectional needs to access all the rights and resources that would enable them to both terminate pregnancies when they choose and raise healthy children when they choose.

Two years ago Ross wrote a prescient article addressing Planned Parenthood: “Perhaps none of the challenges facing Planned Parenthood [after Cecile Richards steps down as president] is as urgent as the racial and class divisions that shape how American women seek reproductive health care. Race and class are inextricable in America, and both interfere with access to and use of reproductive health services. …

“In this dangerous political moment, Planned Parenthood also requires an expert on white supremacy, someone who can use an intersectional analysis to respond to [Trump’s] anti-democratic movement.” (HuffPost, Jan. 30, 2018)

Exposing right-wing hypocrisy and lies

Anti-abortion forces, led by “Right to Life” groups initiated by the Catholic Church, swung into action only days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized the right to abortion in 1973.

Its prime target was Margaret Sanger, who single-handedly started the fight for “birth control” — a term she coined in 1916 when she founded her first women’s health clinic in Brooklyn. Sanger and her staff were arrested during a raid on the clinic nine days after it opened.

Charged with providing information on contraception and fitting women for diaphragms, Sanger and her sister spent 30 days in jail for breaking the law. Later appealing her conviction, she scored a victory for the birth control movement. Her clinics grew nationally and her health care organization became Planned Parenthood in 1942. Sanger has since been hailed as a reproductive rights forerunner and pioneer.

The Catholic church, which opposes birth control, fought Sanger for promoting it and for supporting eugenics, the racist theory that some people are inherently superior to others. Rooted in racism, classism and ableism, eugenics followers deemed “selective breeding” was needed to improve the genetic “quality” of the population.

The concept was not new. Plato suggested it around 400 B.C. The Nazis put the U.S. theory into practice.

New York University historian Linda Gordon, author of  “Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right” (1976), told TIME July 21: “In the 1920s eugenics was almost universally considered good science, accepted by people on the Left and on the Right — including some Black leaders — and taught in most biology textbooks.” She added, “[I]t is a mistake to put [Sanger] in the same category as defenders of slavery and segregation.”

Eugenics theory has been used to justify racist and ableist forced sterilization. In 1927 the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in Buck v. Bell that the state of Virginia could permit compulsory sterilization of anyone deemed developmentally disabled “to protect the health of the state.” This policy was used to justify sterilization of poor, uneducated, mostly women of color, people with disabilities and immigrants. A 1937 Fortune magazine poll found that two-thirds of the population supported forced sterilization for the intellectually disabled.

Racist state legislatures and courts predominantly in the South promoted sterilization for an estimated 70,000 uneducated, poor, mostly Black women though the mid-1970s. At the same time over 30% of women in Puerto Rico became sterilized, which they were encouraged to do so they could more easily work outside the home. Today documents in California and other states show that women prisoners, predominantly Black and Brown, have been sterilized, often without their permission.

Reproductive justice is a human right

Historical background on Margaret Sanger puts both Catholic and Evangelical religious right-wing attacks on Planned Parenthood into perspective. These anti-abortion groups have sanctimoniously charged the organization with being racist for “promoting” abortion for Black women. Arch-reactionaries Sen. Ted Cruz and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have railed against the organization’s alleged racism.

But isn’t it the height of hypocrisy that these biased, reactionary groups and political figures have done nothing substantive to advance the lives of women or children of color? When have they supported government services that subsidize food, housing, childcare and health care for low-income families?

All they do is disparage and stigmatize those who seek abortions and promote hundreds of legal hurdles to prevent women and gender-oppressed people from having access to constitutional, essential reproductive health care — a human right.

The right wing continues to misuse the issue of racism to undermine reproductive justice. Dr. Rachel R. Hardeman, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota, whose specialty is racism and maternal health, demolished Ross Douthat’s reactionary July 31 column, “Systemic racism: Planned Parenthood as a prime example,” in the New York Times.

Hardeman writes: “Historic myths about Black women’s health — steeped in racism — continue to haunt us, but the right to safe, legal abortion is not one of them. Overall, Douthat conflates the unequal impact of public policy on Black communities with the fundamental right of Black women to control our own bodies. His position reflects the ideals of a white, patriarchal society that is pushed onto minority groups that are too often set up to struggle in a society built by and for white people.

“What Black women want and deserve is access to the best medical care available, including the full range of reproductive health options so we can determine our own destiny. Our bodies are our own, and we won’t apologize for it.”