You’ve probably seen people on the news tear down statues and demand buildings be renamed that have any reference to past injustice. This includes not just notorious figures, but also people long considered heroes like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Fr. Junipero Serra.
However, the defenders of this “cancel culture” have forgotten to include one person in their purge: Margaret Sanger, who founded what would later become Planned Parenthood. Sanger is featured in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, has a square named after her in New York, and an award Planned Parenthood has given politicians and activists for nearly fifty years.
Sanger’s legacy includes truly horrible treatment of people of color. But before we make this case, we have to clear up some “fake news” about Sanger:
- The quote “Slavs, Latin and Hebrew immigrants are human weeds. Blacks, soldiers and Jews are a menace to the race.,” appears to be apocryphal as it cannot be located in Sanger’s writings (though, as we’ll see, she does call the poor and disabled “human weeds”).
- Another quote, “The mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly,” is actually from black socialist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was a contributor to Sanger’s Birth Control Review. Like Sanger and other eugenicists, he believed that only the fittest should be encouraged to reproduce, though it shouldn’t be claimed that he harbored racist motives.
- There is a fake picture of Margaret Sanger speaking at a Ku Klux Klan rally circulating online. Sanger did address a women’s auxiliary meeting of the Klan in 1926, which she justified by saying “any aroused group is a good group.” However, in her autobiography she described the experience as being “weird” and doesn’t seem particularly enamored with the group.
So what is the authentic evidence for Sanger’s racism?
The most famous is an excerpt from a letter she wrote to Clarence Gamble about the “Negro Project,” which was an effort to promote access to contraception in black communities. She wrote, “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.”
This passage can be read in two ways—either as a warning against revealing her true intent to use contraception in order to eliminate the black race, or as a caution against spreading the false idea that she wanted to exterminate their race and enlisted black ministers to “straighten out” people who arrived at that incorrect conclusion.
The non-racist reading is supported by some of Sanger’s other statements, such as in 1946, when she said “every possible effort should be made to have every Negro child count as a valuable contribution to the future of America.” In a 1945 interview she said she turned down a donation for a birth control clinic because the donor wanted to use contraceptives to eliminate black people.
The Washington Post called this an “inartfully written” sentence, but defenders of cancel culture who routinely ignore intentions and interpret people’s words in the worst possible way are inconsistent if they refuse to do the same with Sanger. But even if Sanger were not racist herself, her actions contributed to systems that greatly harmed blacks and other minorities, which is all that defenders of “cancel culture” need to justify condemning her.
For example, cancelers target Fr. Junipero Serra or Christopher Columbus because they made it possible for other people to exploit indigenous people and infect them with diseases to which they had no immunity. The fact that Serra and Columbus never intended these harms is irrelevant to the critic’s conclusion that these individuals deserve cancellation.
Considering the true and ugly consequences of Sanger’s push for eugenics only strengthens the case. She believed that the disabled, the unintelligent, and criminals were a drain on society and the key to removing them was to prevent their conception. She wrote “Feeblemindedness is the more serious of the problems, because it is an absolute dead weight on the race . . . As it is inheritable, it renders it a deteriorating poison and depreciates the whole quality of a people.”
By “race” Sanger means the human race, but it would be understandable if you associated her words with white supremacy. Eugenicists of Sanger’s time believed “Nordic” humans were the fittest due to their height and relative good health, which turned into the idea that “Aryans” were the only “fit” race. Adolf Hitler told a confidante “I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”
Similar claims are made by many contributors throughout Sanger’s Birth Control Review. You can’t slide a piece of paper between Hitler’s dehumanizing language and much of Sanger’s own language. She wrote in The New York Times: “the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extinction, of defective stocks—those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.”
Sanger’s primary way to accomplish this was through promoting the voluntary use of contraceptives among the poor and others she viewed as being “unfit.” Surprisingly, she promoted contraception over elective abortion, calling the latter “barbaric” and a “disgrace to civilization.” But she recognized that her voluntary, contraceptive approach could only go so far:
Birth Control is not advanced as a panacea by which past and present evils of dysgenic breeding can be magically eliminated. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.
By “drastic methods” she means forced sterilizations. In the same article, she says “In case of refusal [to use birth control] such persons should have a choice of sterilization or isolation. Under no circumstances should the state allow such parents to cast their diseased and demented progeny upon society for the normal and fit to provide for.” This was not a mere dystopian fantasy: in the 1922 case of Buck v Bell the Supreme Court upheld the State’s right to sterilize people against their will. In North Carolina, for example, over 7,000 forced sterilizations took place between 1929 and 1976.
Even without being explicitly racist, Sanger’s contempt for the downtrodden should be enough to merit outrage from “cancel culture” warriors. And it is easy to see how the eugenics she so passionately supported would logically be used against people of color in a society where racism was common.
Racist exploitation is clearly visible in historical examples of doctors tricking non-English speakers into signing sterilization papers and welfare offices withholding payments from women who would not submit to sterilization. 65% of the women who were sterilized in North Carolina were Black. A 1974 pamphlet arguing against these practices rightly declared: “FORCED STERILIZATION IS RACISM IN PRACTICE.”
Responding to these arguments, some say Sanger was a “woman of her time” and that we shouldn’t judge her for being a eugenicist since it was a very popular view (an argument the Smithsonian makes) and forced sterilizations were legal. But by that logic, how can we judge Christopher Columbus, who was also a “man of his time”? The slave trade he helped facilitate was both popular and legal under Spanish law.
Others will say that Sanger’s contributions to society, especially her promotion of contraception, justify celebrating her in spite of her other negative qualities. But if that’s the case, then surely the contributions of America’s Founding Fathers justifies their celebration, despite the fact that they owned slaves and, in Jefferson’s case, fathered children with some of them.
So, defenders of cancel culture have a choice if they want to be consistent: they can either condemn Margaret Sanger along most historical figures who do not meet their twenty-first century ideological purity tests, or they can abandon a reflexive, uncritical “cancel culture” entirely.
Personally, I think they should do the latter and view historical figures as human beings with vices and virtues, and save their condemnations for figures whose vices grossly outweigh any virtues they might have had. If they do that, they will see that celebrating a woman like Margaret Sanger who considered many poor minorities to be “human weeds” is incompatible with the claim that “Black Lives Matter” (By the way, Nancy Pelosi should return that Margaret Sanger award she got from Planned Parenthood in 2014).
Sanger only valued the lives of the “fittest.” Basic decency requires that we value all human beings, who each possess a dignity that comes with being made in the image and likeness of God.