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Due to a variety of current events, the name of Margaret Sanger has repeatedly surfaced in the news the past few weeks. The focus on Planned Parenthood because of a series of investigative videos has brought renewed attention to the organization’s notorious founder. Presidential candidate Ben Carson has encouraged people to “go and read about Margaret Sanger and go and read about the beginnings of this organization so that you know what you’re dealing with.” Several journalists have been criticized for accepting the “Maggie” awards for their pro-abortion coverage. And a group of black pastors sent a letter to the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery asking that the bust of Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger be removed from the museum’s “Struggle for Justice” exhibit.
Who was Margaret Sanger? Here are nine things you should know about one of the 20th century’s most controversial figures:
1. In 1916, Sanger opened the world’s first birth control clinic in New York City. Nine days later Sanger was thrown in jail and the clinic shutdown for violating the Comstock obscenity laws, which included a prohibition against literature describing contraceptive methods.
2. At the First American Birth Control Conference in 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL). In 1942 the ABCL changed its name to 1942 Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1952 in Bombay, India at the Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) was founded. Sanger served as president of the IPPF from 1952 to 1959. (She died in 1966.)
3. Sanger was leading advocate of the eugenics movement, specifically of negative eugenics, which promoted the reduction of sexual reproduction and sterilization of people with undesired traits or economic conditions. Her views on eugenics were shaped at an early age by her experience in a large family. The sixth of eleven children, she noticed as a child that the wealthy families had small families while the poor had large families. In her autobiography, My Fight for Birth Control, she wrote, “I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, jails with large families.”
4. Sanger believed the use of birth control was necessary, as Jyotsna Sreenivasan explains, not only for the individual woman’s well-being but also for the economy as a whole. In her 1931 pamphlet “Family Limitation” Sanger wrote, “The working woman can use direct action by refusing to supply the market with children to be exploited, by refusing to populate the earth with slaves. . . . Pass on this information to your neighbor and comrade workers.” Sanger arranged for this pamphlet to be distributed widely though a Socialist labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World.
5. In Woman and the New Race, Sanger included a chapter to answer the question, “When Should a Woman Avoid Having Children?” Included in her list are the admonition that “No more children should be born when the parents, though healthy themselves, find that their children are physically or mentally defective” and “By all means there should be no children when either mother or father suffers from such diseases as tuberculosis, gonorrhea, syphilis, cancer, epilepsy, insanity, drunkenness and mental disorders.”
6. On a radio show, Sanger is reported to have said that “morons, mental defectives, epileptics, illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and dope fiends” ought to be surgically sterilized. If they wish, she said, such people should also be able to choose a lifelong segregated existence in labor camps.