July 17, 2014

Margaret Sanger: A Champion of Reproductive Freedom?

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, is often revered by advocates for the advancements she made in reproductive freedom. Many see her as a hero and a fearless leader for the advancement of women. Planned Parenthood’s website proclaims that: “Women's progress in recent decades — in education, in the workplace, in political and economic power — can be directly linked to Sanger's crusade and women's ability to control their own fertility.”1

The highest award that Planned Parenthood gives is the Margaret Sanger Award. This year, when Nancy Pelosi accepted the Margaret Sanger Award, she spoke of Sanger saying, “Margaret Sanger understood that women should never be silent – not when their fundamental rights are at stake.  She knew that positive change seldom came to those who waited; it came to those who worked and struggled, who acted, agitated, and fought for equality.  She recognized, as your theme declares this evening, that women are ‘stronger together.’”2

But Margaret Sanger’s legacy is a little more complicated than it would initially seem. For example, Margaret Sanger refused to condemn the “female hygiene” products that were starting to be marketed in the 1930s. These products were marked as a way of preventing pregnancy, but in reality, the majority of these products did nothing to prevent pregnancies. The manufacturers were taking advantage of women’s fears of pregnancy to sell their products to gain higher profits. Not only were the products ineffective, but they could also be quite dangerous, risking permanent damage to a woman’s body, and even death. Margaret Sanger refused to take a stance against these manufactures, despite the fact that they were contributing to the injury and death of women. She was quoted as saying that the reason she would not condemn them was “they have not lagged behind like the medical profession but have gone ahead and answered [a] growing and urgent need.” 3 But by  not speaking out against these manufacturers, it appears that Margaret Sanger  seemed more interested in promoting her ideology than she did in ensuring the safety and well-being of the women affected by it; she had forsaken the women that she claimed to desire to help.
Lysol produced one of these "feminine hygiene products"

Margaret Sanger even spoke out against maternity centers where “Such women are to be visited by nurses and to receive instruction in the hygiene of pregnancy, to be guided in making arrangements for confinements to be invited to come to the doctor s clinics for examination and supervision. They are we [sic] are informed, to receive adequate care during pregnancy at confinement and for one month afterward.”4 These maternity centers that were sponsored by private charities existed to help poor women with their pregnancies by providing them with proper health care and education. Margaret Sanger believed that these centers did women a disservice, saying the programs were “not merely superficial and near sighted. It conceals a stupid cruelty, because it is not courageous enough to face unpleasant facts. Aside from the question of the unfitness of many women to become mothers, aside from the very definite deterioration in the human stock that such programs would inevitably hasten, we may question its value even to the normal though unfortunate mother. For it is never the intention of such philanthropy to give the poor over burdened and often undernourished mother of the slum the opportunity to make the choice herself to decide whether she wishes time after to time to bring children into the world.”4 She saw these programs not only as useless, but cruel because they did not provide birth control for these women. Instead of recognizing the merits of these centers and the obvious need for them, she harshly criticizes them for not conforming to her ideology. It is interesting to parallel this view with the relationship between Planned Parenthood and pregnancy resource centers today. Planned Parenthood has often criticized pregnancy resource centers because they are not in line with their ideology, because they refuse to refer for abortions or provide birth control. There seems to be a refusal to admit the value of these centers or acknowledge any good that they might be doing because the centers refuse to embrace the same ideology that Planned Parenthood advocates.

Finally, and possibly most disturbing, is the eugenic agenda to which Margaret Sanger adhered. Margaret Sanger pushed the use of birth control to contribute to the eugenic ends she idealized. In Sanger’s autobiography, she writes about a lecture she gave on the seven circumstances in which birth control should be practiced. The third circumstance was “when parents, though normal, had subnormal children,” the fourth was “when husband and wife were adolescent,” and the fifth was “when the earning capacity of the father was inadequate.”5 She found that these circumstances produced less desirable children, or that the parents were not fit to be parents.

Margaret Sanger is seen as one of the biggest proponents of ‘reproductive freedom.’ Yet it seems that she doesn't truly desire reproductive freedom for all - only for those she saw as able parents (meaning the middle or upper, white class). In her autobiography she elaborates saying “anyone, no matter how ignorant, how diseased mentally or physically, how lacking in all knowledge of children, seemed to consider he or she had a right to parent.”5 Sanger seems to believe that only certain people have the right to parent. So she promotes birth control for those who she does not see as able to parent according to her standards. She does not advocate parenting classes, or attempt to help those “lacking in all knowledge of children,” but instead believes that they simply should not be parents, which is where birth control comes in.

The quotes above indicate that Margaret Sanger was not, in fact, a true advocate of reproductive freedom. Margaret Sanger was a diehard eugenicist, believing the reproduction should be limited to those who she saw as able parents. This eugenic mindset is evident throughout her writings and work.

The legacy that Margaret Sanger left was not one of dedicated care for all women. Instead, she pushed her ideology at all costs. Planned Parenthood continues to follow in the footsteps of their beloved founder,  as shown in  Live Action’s latest videos [warning-explicit] exposing the danger in which Planned Parenthood puts children. 

And what about those maternity centers that Margaret Sanger saw as useless and even cruel? These are the groups and organizations that promote true women’s freedom. Groups that strive to empower women to take charge of their own lives, by helping to give them the tools to do so. Groups like the Women’s Care Center, the Guiding Star Project, Hannah’s House, Seton Home, and so many more. There is a better way to help moms and babies. We should be supporting these organizations in their view of authentic women’s freedom through whatever way we can, be that volunteering, donating, writing letters, or praying. Because being pro-life is being pro-woman. I believe in women’s freedom. Do you?

  1. http://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/who-we-are/history-successes#early
  2. http://www.democraticleader.gov/newsroom/press-releases/pelosi-remarks-accepting-margaret-sanger-award-planned-parenthood-annual-gala/
  3. Tone, Andrea. Controlling Reproduction: An American History. Wilmington, DE: SR, 1997. 228-29. Print.
  4. Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization. Elmsford, NY: Maxwell Reprint, 1969. 114-16. Print.
  5. DuPont, Kathryn. Margaret Sanger an Autobiography. Lanham: Cooper Square Press, 1999. 193-195. Print.

1 comment:

  1. You don't know the half of it. I've been doing my own research into Margaret Sanger because there is just so much biased information out there. People either worship her or demonize her. But she was a human, and as such, the truth is much more complicated. While I would argue with you about her relationship with the eugenics movement, you are right about her single-minded drive to promote birth control. She thought that birth control was the answer to all of the world's problems. Anyone who stood in her way was ignorant and standing in the way of progress. Now, birth control is pretty easily accessible in much of the western world. Where is the world peace that she claimed that would bring? All I see is a plummeting birth rate and all of the chaos that brings. Human trafficking, financial collapse as there are not enough young people to help support the aging population, and the younger generation isn't any more 'perfect' than their predecessors because, guess what, they're human. Less people doesn't necessarily mean higher-quality people (whatever 'higher-quality' means). The social experiment of Sanger and some of her contemporaries is failing. I just hope that people wake up to that before it's too late.