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No Shirt, No Shoes, No Reproduction

Tom Breen

Although her name might be only dimly familiar to those outside the confines of the American liberalism, Margaret Sanger is a patron saint. Roughly, she occupies the same space in birth control movement hagiography that Martin Luther King, Jr. occupies for the civil rights movement, albeit Sanger's legacy is untouched by assassination or unfulfilled hopes. According to Planned Parenthood, the organization she founded, Sanger is responsible for establishing the foundation of a woman's human rights, reversing federal laws which prevented the distribution of birth control information, and establishing civil disobedience as an American institution, along with many other "visionary accomplishments."

There is, of course, another side to Sanger's story. Having been a vocal proponent of family planning and birth control since the early decades of the 20th century, Sanger was criticized ferociously at the time, when sexual mores were very different. Since many of her most prominent critics happened to be clergymen, Sanger's defenders have been able to dismiss all of their criticism as unfounded, chalked up to the mental deformities of religious ideology. This dismissal plays very well in liberal, "progressive" circles, and so the canonization of Margaret Sanger has been achieved without serious difficulty. Two years ago, this process was completed with the inclusion of Sanger in a list of the 100 most important Americans of the last century in a special issue of Time Magazine, that reliable barometer of middlebrow liberal opinion.

This is a shame, because Sanger's critics, however ideologically unpalatable they may be, have good points. The most damning charge is that Sanger was a eugenicist, and that the modern American birth control movement itself was conceived as a eugenic project. Try as they might, Sanger's heirs have not been able to escape this unpleasant association. As bad as this may be for Sanger's reputation, that isn't even the gravest charge. This fall, a book by Georgia Tech Professor Andrea Tone, called Devices and Desires, will be published in which she contends that birth control was readily available to all Americans from the 1880s on, and that the real legacy of Margaret Sanger might have been to make safe and effective birth control inaccessible to large numbers of poor women.

The eugenics charge is an old one, and it has the added credibility of being irrefutable. It is the charge which is most vexing to Sanger's defenders, since the word "eugenics" summons before the contemporary mind a grotesque parade of Nazis, quack scientists and forced sterilization. Eugenics, the "science" of improving the human race by selective breeding, has justly been condemned as politically unacceptable and scientifically unsound. Moreover, the enthusiastic embrace of eugenic science by the Nazi government in Germany during the 1930s has forever (and often inaccurately) linked all eugenicists to fascism.

Sanger herself was an enthusiastic believer in eugenics, although Planned Parenthood goes to ridiculous lengths to deny this in their official literature (Planned Parenthood did not respond to repeated offers to comment on this story). On the first page of their "Margaret Sanger Fact Sheet," there is the following statement: "Margaret Sanger was not a racist, an anti-Semite, or a eugenicist." Mainstream historical scholarship, along with the writings of Sanger herself, begs to differ.

"Sanger was a eugenicist," Professor Tone states categorically. "Like most Americans at the time, she supported sterilization for the incarcerated."

In Pivot of Civilization (1922), a book that Planned Parenthood must surely wish was never written, Sanger herself says in the appendix entitled "Principles and Aims of the American Birth Control League" (which was renamed Planned Parenthood in 1942):

"Everywhere we see poverty and large families going hand in hand. Those least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly. . . Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those who should never have been born." Later in this document, Sanger goes on to urge the foundation of a Department of Sterilization in the ABCL to advocate the performance of this operation on "the insane and feeble-minded and the encouragement of this operation upon those afflicted with inherited or transmissible diseases."

Pivot of Civilization is one of those remarkable documents from the Progressive Era, a time when the first World War had shattered confidence in the progress of what used to be called Western civilization, and in which a variety of heretofore unthinkable ideas and goals were put forth with the utmost clarity of language. Reading it today, one is struck by the forcefulness of its vision, by Sanger's eloquent insistence on the sheer desperation of the condition of motherhood. However, one is also struck by statements like this: "The philosophy of Birth Control points out that as long as civilized communities encourage unrestrained fecundity. . . they will be faced with the ever-increasing problem of feeble-mindedness, that fertile parent of degeneracy, crime, and pauperism."

There is also, in the remarkable chapter called "Fertility of the Feeble-Minded," this contention: "Modern studies indicate that insanity, epilepsy, criminality, prostitution, pauperism, and mental defect, are all organically bound up together and that the least intelligent and the thoroughly degenerate classes in every community are the most prolific."

Sanger, who worked as a nurse in poor neighborhoods in New York City, offered this sage medical advice: "Every feeble-minded girl or woman of the hereditary type, especially of the moron class, should be segregated during the reproductive period. Otherwise, she is almost certain to bear imbecile children, who in turn are just as certain to breed other defectives." Segregation during the "reproductive period" (from age 14 to age 45?) wasn't sure enough a solution for Sanger, though. She preferred "the policy of immediate sterilization, of making sure that parenthood is absolutely prohibited to the feeble-minded."

One could quote many more passages like this (such as the entire chapter entitled "The Cruelty of Charity," in which she calls persons with epilepsy "this dead weight of human waste"), but eventually the stomach begins to turn.

By attributing prostitution, crime, and poverty to heredity, Sanger is acting as an apologist for the economic ruling class at a time when its exploitation of the working class was nakedly brutal. This she has in common with many of her comrades from the Progressive movement; despite romantic claims that they were "socialists" (and Sanger devotes a whole chapter of Pivot of Civilization to explaining why Marxist revolution is undesirable). Often their "radicalism" is merely a masked form of the era's dominant ideology, which was the absolute supremacy of capital. By locating the origins of social conditions in human biology, Sanger mystified the political order just as surely as any number of Jesuits; the society in which some people were poor and others were rich was not a product of class dictatorship, but rather it was ordained by human genetics. This discourages a realistic analysis of society's economic structure just as surely as it encourages such disgusting measures as involuntary sterilization.

It is clear from Sanger's language that her understanding of eugenics led her to a far different position than "reproductive decisions should be made on an individual and not a social or cultural basis," which is one of many fallacious claims on her behalf to be found on the Planned Parenthood web site ( Sanger was a eugenicist, and a eugenicist of the most pernicious type.

So much for that controversy. What is more interesting is the recent suggestion in Professor Andrea Tone's new book that Sanger unintentionally contributed to a medicalization of birth control which took it out of the hands of poor women.

Tone contends that modern birth control devices were widely manufactured beginning in the 1880s, following the discovery of vulcanized rubber. Part of the Sanger Myth is that it was only her fierce opposition to the "Comstock laws" (named for crusading postal inspector Anthony Comstock, who was responsible for laws preventing the dissemination of pornography through the mails) which enabled birth control to be widely available to Americans.

Tone paints a different picture, saying in a recent interview, "Despite the passage of laws criminalizing them, contraceptives were widely available in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." This birth control had many forms — "condoms, suppositories, womb veils (the nineteenth century term for cervical caps and diaphragms), pessaries, douching syringes and powders" — all of which could easily be had from "rubber goods merchants, druggists, and mail-order catalogs." Sold under euphemisms to protect manufacturers and retailers from arrest, these were the ways which Americans practiced birth control, long before Margaret Sanger penned her first classist diatribe.

Sanger's real role was as a publicist, as someone who formed leagues and edited reviews, and who generally caused a tremendous ruckus. This is where Sanger's defenders are very nearly correct in their assessment of her, for she fought a good deal of First Amendment cases that proved tremendously helpful to later generations of unpopular politicians (although it's worth noting that the Supreme Court case which finally did away with Comstockism and state restrictions on birth control, Griswold vs. Connecticut, had nothing to do with Sanger). In terms of concrete contributions to pre-pill birth control accessibility, Sanger's record was distinctly mixed.

"Sanger struck a deal to make the birth control movement middle class and respectable," Tone said. "To win the support of doctors and the scientific community, she promoted the doctor-fitted diaphragm as the best and safest method of birth control." Tone points out that the diaphragm was (and remains) safe and effective, but the medicalization of birth control left it inaccessible to many women. "Many women found the diaphragm too expensive or embarrassing to get, and too awkward to use. At no point in American history has the diaphragm been a method embraced by a majority of women using contraception."

The end result of Sanger's respectability drive, then, was (in the words of Daniel J. Kevles, who reviewed Tone's book for the New York Times Book Review and who is the author of In the Name of Eugenics), "A problem — medicalization put diaphragms out of reach of the many women who did not have access to physicians or who were embarrassed to submit to internal examination."

Tone's conclusions are fresh and important, but one despairs of their having an ability to break the tiresome debate over Margaret Sanger's worthiness as a political hero. This indeed is perhaps the great mystery surrounding Sanger and the organization which she founded and which has since outgrown her: Why does Planned Parenthood continue to link itself with the dubious memory of this person? The evident anguish, the huge amount of straw men erected by Planned Parenthood in defense of Sanger, shows that they have taken some pains to apply a coat of paint to her tarnished legacy. That this activity is futile should be evident even from the briefest perusals of Sanger's own works, and yet Planned Parenthood continues to devote time and energy to it. Her own twisted ideas about population and "feeble-mindedness" are far from dead, of course, but Planned Parenthood can hardly be accused of espousing them (the place to find such views today is the group Zero Population Growth, which counts among its supporters Ted Turner and Warren Buffet).

In fact, Planned Parenthood as an organization has changed so much in the years since Sanger's death that, were she alive today, it's likely that she wouldn't have anything to do with it. The major differences are not merely in the matter of abortion, which Sanger went to her grave opposing; rather, Planned Parenthood is indisputably concerned with the "individual reproductive choice" that they incorrectly attribute to Sanger. In other words, Planned Parenthood has tried to make a personal decision which Sanger sought to base on economic and "scientific" abstractions; namely, the choice whether or not to become a parent. Just as the NAACP has outgrown the legacy of one of its founders, the government informer WEB Dubois, so too has Planned Parenthood long since outgrown the legacy of Sanger, which makes their continued association with her all the more confusing. Perhaps their unwillingness to respond to numerous offers to comment on this article is illuminating; perhaps, like many Americans, Planned Parenthood has decided that Margaret Sanger is no longer worth worrying about.

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