Was Margaret Sanger a Eugenicist?

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Dennis A. Wright, DMin.

Was Margaret Sanger a Eugenicist?

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) claims, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that "Margaret Sanger was not a . . . eugenicist." Let us examine their allegations and respond, point by point.  (See Planned Parenthood's lengthy fact-sheet, "The Truth About Margaret Sanger," here.)
1.        PPFA'S CLAIM: First the fact-sheet claims that eugenicists were "opposed to the use of abortion and contraception by healthy and 'fit' women."
THE TRUTH: PPFA here confuses positive eugenics with all forms of eugenics.  In fact, only some eugenicists (and probably the minority at that) held the view that PPFA described.
2.        PPFA'S CLAIM: Next the web-page quotes the following from the February 1919 issue of the Birth Control Review (BCR): "Eugenists imply or insist that a woman's first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state.  We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world.  We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother" ("Birth Control and Racial Betterment," BCR, Feb. 1919, p. 11).
THE TRUTH: Sounds "pro-choice," right?  Unfortunately, as many women have found out too late, the "choices" that Planned Parenthood tends to promote are "planned" (by them) but have little to do with parenthood.  So too the only "choice" Sanger promoted was the one she determined best for you.  The above quote comes in the context of an article on eugenics, the title of which ("Birth Control and Racial Betterment") PPFA neglects to mention, and the whole article makes clear that only the "fit" woman is deemed worthy of making reproductive decisions.
Sanger advocates forced sterilization for the unfit just a few paragraphs after the quote given above.  The quote PPFA extracts is in the context of Sanger's critique of positive eugenicists encouraging "fit" women to bear more children (the sentences immediately before read: "The eugenist also believes that a woman should bear as many healthy children as possible as a duty to the state.  We hold that the world is already over-populated" [Ibid.]), something which Sanger almost always repudiated.  As far as "negative eugenics" (the elimination of reproduction of the "unfit") was concerned, she was an enthusiastic supporter.
3.        PPFA'S CLAIM: In addition, PPFA says that the phrase "To create a race of thoroughbreds," used as a banner on the cover of the November 1921 issue of the Birth Control Review, was not used with a eugenic intent.  PPFA claims that the remark, originally attributed to Dr. Edward A. Kempf, was pulled by Sanger from a paragraph by Dr. Kempf concerning the need for maternal and infant care clinics and "how environment may improve human excellence," and she used it with this in mind.
THE TRUTH: PPFA's interpretation gets points for originality but demerits for untruthfulness.  Again they neglect the larger context of her writings.  Sanger consistently used metaphors of plant and animal culture and applied them to humans; see, for example, the first article and the following: "'Nature eliminates the weeds, but we turn them into parasites and allow them to reproduce.'  Could any business maintain itself with the burden of such an 'overhead'?  Could any breeder of livestock conduct his enterprise on such a basis?  I do not think so." ("Is Race Suicide Probable?" Collier's, vol. 76, 8/15/25, p. 25)
In addition, Sanger had an unpublished article entitled "We Must Breed a Race of Thoroughbreds" that advocated giving birth control to various categories of the "unfit," such those with transmissible disease, the "feeble-minded," and so forth (Library of Congress, Margaret Sanger Papers, unpublished manuscript, 1929).  Clearly, Sanger used this phrase with a eugenic intent.
4.        PPFA'S CLAIM: Sanger's quote, "The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it" (Woman and the New Race [NY: Brentano's, 1920], p. 63) was "taken out of context," according to PPFA.  "Sanger was making an ironic comment-not a prescriptive one-about the horrifying rate of infant mortality among large families of early 20th-century urban America."
THE TRUTH: PPFA's interpretation is unlikely.  While there may be no way to prove irony or the lack thereof, there is a decided absence of humor in all of Sanger's writings.  Sanger elsewhere speaks of people "who never should have been born," and she also frequently refers to infanticide as a primitive form of birth control.  "The earliest methods of primitive society have been infanticide . . . ; the abandonment of babies; and feticide or abortion .  .  ." ("The Need of Birth Control in America," Birth Control: Facts and Responsibilities, Adolf Meyer, editor [Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins Company, 1925], p. 12).
Rather than decrying these methods, Sanger says that "all true aristocracies, whether of politics or of genius, are the products of such control" (ibid.).
5.        PPFA'S CLAIM: The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy is the title of a book mistakenly attributed to Sanger.  PPFA claims that the book, written by noted racist Lothrop Stoddard, was reviewed by Havelock Ellis in the October 1920 issue of the Birth Control Review and criticized because it advocated "distinctions based on race or ethnicity alone."
THE TRUTH: As we have seen, the book was indeed not written by Sanger.  However, Lothrop Stoddard, however, was not such an unpopular person as PPFA would have you believe.  PPFA is correct that all of Stoddard's views (i.e., racism) cannot be assumed to be shared by Sanger, but he is one more tie that Sanger had to the eugenics movement, and she certainly expressed similar eugenical statements.
6.        PPFA'S CLAIM: Lastly, PPFA maintains that we should not judge its early-20th-century foundress with our "late 20th-century values."
THE TRUTH: Many people, mostly those not part of the social and economic elite, challenged Sanger during her life-thereby showing that our supposed "late 20th-century values" are actually enduring and eternal ones-and they still challenge PPFA today.  Would PPFA suggest that we not judge the Nazi eugenicists (who borrowed their sterilization law from the "model law" written here in America) because their bigotry was popular and culturally conditioned?
The entire National Right to Live Committee's report on Margaret Sanger can be found here
Dr. Dennis A. Wright is Founder and President of Understanding The Times Ministries.  An accomplished writer and educator, Wright has spoken in churches and conferences all over America on spiritual counterfeits and Christian Worldview topics.  He can be emailed at Dennis@UnderstandingTheTimes.org and his new website can be found at www.UnderstandingTheTimes.org.

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