- Founder of Planned Parenthood
- Marxist and feminist
- Advocate of eugenics and forced sterilization
Margaret Higgins Sanger was born Margaret Higgins on September 14, 1879 in Corning, New York. She was the sixth of eleven children in an Irish Catholic family. Her parents, Michael Hennessy Higgins and Anne Purcell Higgins, were both socialists and early activists in the women’s suffrage movement.
From 1895-97, Miss Higgins (Margaret Sanger) attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute (located in New York’s Hudson Valley), but was forced to drop out when her mother died of tuberculosis. In 1900 she began to study nursing at White Plains Hospital and the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital. In 1902 she earned a degree as a registered nurse and married an architect/socialist named William Sanger.
The Sangers lived in a New York City apartment where liberals, anarchists, Socialists, and Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World) met on a regular basis. “Almost without knowing it you became a ‘comrade,’” Mrs. Sanger later wrote regarding this period of her life. “My own personal feelings drew me toward the individualist, anarchist philosophy … but it seemed necessary to approach the idea by way of Socialism,” she recalled as well.
In 1903 Sanger gave birth to the first of three children she bore with her husband. Later acknowledging that she had neglected those youngsters—one of whom died of pneumonia at age four—Sanger declared that she was not a “fit person for love or home or children or anything which needs attention or consideration.” Anecdotes abound of her inattention to the physical and emotional needs of her children. On one occasion, for example, her son Stuart walked twenty miles along the Cape Cod beach on a hot day to greet his mother at a train station, only to discover that she had never boarded the train and had failed to notify him that she would not be coming. Most egregious, perhaps, was Sanger’s snap decision in 1914 to abscond to Europe in order to avoid criminal charges, leaving behind a young daughter who was very ill.
Sanger was no more considerate of her marital vows than she was of her parental responsibilities. As author Daniel Flynn writes: “She was a serial adulterer. Among the scores who shared her bed were some of the most famous men of her time, including novelist H. G. Wells and sex researcher Havelock Ellis. As she cheated on her husband of the moment with not-so-secret lovers, she cheated on these paramours with still other beaus. These encounters, biographer Ellen Chesler suggests, were limited neither to members of the opposite sex nor to two participants.” Sanger eventually separated from her husband in 1914.
In 1903 the Sangers moved to Saranac, New York, located in the Adirondack Mountains. About eight years later, they relocated to the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan, described by Biography.com as “a bohemian enclave known for its radical politics at the time.” In the Village, the couple socialized with luminaries like the socialist writer Upton Sinclair and the anarchist/eugenicist Emma Goldman (who became something of a mentor to Mrs. Sanger). Sanger joined the Women’s Committee of the New York Socialist Party and the Liberal Club, and she participated in a number of strikes led by the Industrial Workers of the World union. Author Jonah Goldberg writes that Sanger “fell in with the transatlantic bohemian avant-garde of the burgeoning fascist moment.”
In 1912 Sanger began writing a women’s-rights column for the New York Call entitled “What Every Girl Should Know,” whose themes centered around the importance of contraception. In this column, Sanger once wrote the following about population groups she considered to be intellectually inferior: “In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.”
This low regard for certain groups formed the foundation of what would become Sanger’s lifelong devotion to the goal of purifying society by means of birth control, sterilization, and eugenics.
In addition to her writings in the New York Call, Sanger in the fall of 2014 began writing and distributing a pamphlet titled Family Limitation, which provided details about contraception methods and devices. The publication contained a considerable amount of dubious information, such as: (a) advising that pregnancy could be avoided by consuming “five or ten grains” of the malarial medicine quinine, and (b) suggesting that the repeated consumption of laxatives known as Beecham Pills “four days before menstruation, will give a good cleansing of the bowels and assist with the menstrual flow.” Also in Family Limitation, Sanger began speculating about the feasibility of developing a “magic pill” that could prevent pregnancy. “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother,” she said.
By publishing Family Limitation, Sanger ran afoul of the Comstock Law (named after the politician and moralist Anthony Comstock) of 1873, which prohibited the trade in, and dissemination of, “obscene and immoral materials.”
Also in 1914, Sanger began writing an eight-page monthly feminist-socialist newsletter called The Woman Rebel, which promoted contraceptive use and sex education. Sanger explained that she chose this name for her publication because “I believe that woman was enslaved by the world machine, by sex conventions, by motherhood and its present necessary child-rearing, by wage slavery, by middle-class morality, by customs, laws and superstitions.” Rebel women, the newsletter maintained, would never compromise their own right “to be lazy,” “to be an unmarried mother,” “to destroy,” “to create,” “to love,” and “to live.”
Adopting the slogan “No Gods and No Masters,” The Woman Rebel was distributed through the mail, and once again Sanger came under fire for violation of the Comstock Law. Sanger was indicted on numerous charges but refused to plea-bargain—in part because of principle, and in part because she wished to draw maximum media attention to her cause.
Notably, the new Comstock charges against Sanger were not triggered by anything lewd or obscene that appeared in The Woman Rebel, but rather, by her support, on the pages of that publication, for the use of violence to achieve political, economic, and social goals where necessary. At issue, specifically, was her response to reports that on July 4, 1914, a small group of radicals who were planning to assassinate industrialist John D. Rockefeller by bombing his Pocantico Hills, New York home, were themselves killed when the bomb prematurely exploded in a Harlem apartment. In the aftermath of that accident, Sanger, who despised Rockefeller for serving as a board member of a Colorado corporation that had gone through a bitter feud with striking workers, hailed the conspirators for their “courage, determination, conviction, [and] spirit of defiance.”
Added Sanger: “Even if dynamite were to serve no other purpose than to call forth the spirit of revolutionary solidarity and loyalty, it would prove its great value. For this expression of solidarity and loyalty and of complete defiance to the morality of the masters, in a time of distress and defeat and death, is the most certain sign of that strength and courage which are the first essentials of victory. On July 4th, three revolutionists … were killed by the explosion of dynamite—sacrificed because of their willingness to risk their life for their convictions. This tragedy created a wonderful spirit of loyalty and solidarity among their comrades. It ought to have awakened the same spirit among all those who advocate the overthrow of the present system—at least among the agitators and leaders who urge direct and revolutionary tactics against the master class…. It is time to learn to accept and exult in every act of revolt against oppression, to encourage and create in ourselves that spirit of rebellion which shall lead us to understand and look at the social situation without flinching or quavering or running for cover when any crisis arises. Not until we do create this spirit will the revolutionists ever be feared or even respected in America.”
Sanger also published a complementary article, titled “A Defense of Assassination” and authored by Robert A. Thorpe, which openly justified murder as a means of eliminating political or industrial leaders (like Rockefeller) who stood in the way of what Sanger viewed as progress.
In August 1914, Sanger was indicted for inciting murder and assassination. But rather than face trial in court and a possible five-year jail sentence, she fled by ship to England, leaving behind a sickly daughter (who suffered from a polio-induced leg ailment), two young sons, and her husband. She left without saying goodbye to any of them
Once her ship had entered international waters, Sanger instructed her supporters back home to distribute 100,000 copies of Family Limitation. After arriving in England, she researched various forms of birth control, including diaphragms, which she later smuggled back into the United States. Soon after Sanger returned to the U.S. in October 1915, the elderly Anthony Comstock died, as did Sanger’s frail daughter (of pneumonia). Any enthusiasm to try Sanger in court rapidly dried up after that, and in February 1916 the government dropped all criminal charges against her.
In 1915 Sanger published a handbook for adolescents titled What Every Boy and Girl Should Know, whose Afterword stated: “It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stoop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. For upon the foundation of an enlightened and voluntary motherhood shall a future civilization emerge.”
In 1916 Sanger opened a women’s “birth-control” clinic in Brooklyn, New York—the first of its kind in the United States. The government deemed the clinic illegal, however, and shut it down after nine days; Sanger subsequently spent a month in jail for breaking the Comstock Law. When she later appealed her conviction, the court refused to overturn the verdict but ordered that doctors should thenceforth be allowed to prescribe contraception to their female patients for medical reasons.
Sanger coined the term “birth control” to describe efforts to prevent, as much as possible, the reproduction of “subnormal” human beings who were “less fit” than others, physically or psychologically. Among her many noteworthy quotes on the subject were the following:
- “More children from the fit, less from the unfit. That is the chief issue of birth control.”
- “Knowledge of birth control is essentially moral. Its general, though prudent, practice must lead to a higher individuality and ultimately to a cleaner race.”
Sanger extolled the benefits of what she termed the “religion of birth control,” which would “ease the financial load of caring for with public funds … children destined to become a burden to themselves, to their family, and ultimately to the nation.”
As noted previously, Sanger was a disciple of the anarchist and eugenicist Emma Goldman (1869-1940). The word “eugenics,” meaning “well born,” was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Over the years, there have been two distinctly separate eugenics movements: positive eugenics and negative eugenics. The former aimed to “improve” the human population by encouraging “fit” people to reproduce, whereas the latter tried to discourage “unfit” people—the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the “feeble-minded,” the “idiots,” the “morons,” and the “insane”—from reproducing. Sanger rejected positive eugenics but strongly endorsed negative eugenics. “Like the advocates of Birth Control,” she wrote, the eugenists … are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit. Both are seeking a single end but they lay emphasis upon different methods.”
While she promoted eugenics in the United States, Sanger always kept an eye closely fixed upon the political developments that were taking place in Russia. For Sanger and her generation of radicals, the success of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution largely validated Karl Marx’s promise of a pending new world order. As a Marxist member of the Women’s Committee for the New York Socialist Party, she eagerly anticipated the day when, as predicted, poor workers would rise up, kill off significant numbers of people within the American middle class, and then fully seize the nation’s political and productive powers in an effort to establish a communist workers’ utopia. This expectation blended easily with Sanger’s devotion to eugenics, as author Daniel Flynn explains: “Like Communism, eugenics—creating the well born, the biologically pure, the master race—is a utopian delusion. God had created a flawed world. Man would make things perfect.”
Painfully aware that the miserable poor surrounding her were hardly the makings of a future political vanguard, Sanger sought to improve their revolutionary fitness by encouraging the formation of smaller families, and, of course, by seeking to reduce births among those deemed to be unintelligent. Because Marxists fundamentally believed that children were the property of society (and not of their parents), Sanger and her followers felt entirely justified in demanding not only that poor families begin voluntarily curtailing their own procreation (for the public good), but also that government should be empowered to play a role in enforcing such restraint. In keeping with Sanger’s teachings, American communists eventually accreted the belief that it was selfish and counterrevolutionary to sire too many children—especially “defective” ones, who interfered with the family’s ability to adequately respond to the needs of the Communist Party.
At one point in 1917, Sanger was arrested for distributing condoms. In February of that year, she founded The Birth Control Review, a publication favoring contraception as a way to limit society’s birth rate and “to create a race of thoroughbreds.” Sanger served as the Review’s editor until 1929, and used her editorials to promote birth control and eugenics alike.
In her quest to win widespread public support for birth control, Sanger promoted the doctrine that sex should be viewed primarily as an avenue to personal gratification rather than a means of procreation. As Jonah Goldberg writes: “She brilliantly used the language of liberation to convince women [that by using birth control] they weren’t going along with a collectivist scheme but were in fact ‘speaking truth to power,’ as it were. This was the identical trick the Nazis pulled off. They took a radical Nietzschean doctrine of individual will and made it into a trendy dogma of middle-class conformity. This trick remains the core of much faddish ‘individualism’ among rebellious conformists on the American cultural left today. Nonetheless, Sanger’s analysis was surely correct, and led directly to the widespread feminist association of sex with political rebellion. Sanger in effect ‘bought off’ women (and grateful men) by offering tolerance for promiscuity in return for compliance with her eugenic schemes.”
While Sanger viewed voluntary birth control as a useful tool for improving the population, she knew that it could not, by itself, fully achieve that end. In February 1919 she wrote in The Birth Control Review: “While I personally believe in the sterilization of the feeble-minded, the insane and syphilitic, I have not been able to discover that these measures are more than superficial deterrents when applied to the constantly growing stream of the unfit. They are excellent means of meeting a certain phase of the situation, but I believe in regard to these, as in regard to other eugenic means, that they do not go to the bottom of the matter.” Ultimately, Sanger’s goal of purifying the population could only be realized through the intervention of an intrusive, all-encompassing government that would: (a) “apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring,” and (b) would “give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.”
Stressing the need to merge eugenics with birth control, Sanger wrote in the February 2019 issue of The Birth Control Review: “Eugenics without birth control seems to us a house builded upon the sands. It is at the mercy of the rising stream of the unfit.”
In her 1920 book Woman and the New Race, Sanger articulated the following thoughts regarding birth control, eugenics, and population control:
- “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. In the case of the mother, heart disease, kidney trouble and pelvic deformities are also a serious bar to childbearing No more children should be born when the parents, though healthy themselves, find that their children are physically or mentally defective.”
- “[Birth control] is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.”
- “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it. The same factors which create the terrible infant mortality rate, and which swell the death rate of children between the ages of one and five, operate even more extensively to lower the health rate of the surviving members [in large families].”
“A fair-minded person,” writes Jonah Goldberg, “cannot read Sanger’s books, articles, and pamphlets today without finding similarities not only to Nazi eugenics but to the dark dystopias of the feminist imagination found in such allegories as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. As editor of The Birth Control Review, Sanger regularly published the sort of hard racists we normally associate with Goebbels or Himmler. Indeed, after she resigned as editor, The Birth Control Review ran articles by people who worked for Goebbels and Himmler. For example, when the Nazi eugenics program was first getting wide attention, The Birth Control Review was quick to cast the Nazis in a positive light, giving over its pages for an article titled ‘Eugenic Sterilization: An Urgent Need,’ by Ernst Rüdin, Hitler’s director of sterilization and a founder of the Nazi Society for Racial Hygiene.”
One of Sanger’s closest friends and most influential colleagues was the white supremacist Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, a 1920 book in which he promoted the cultivation of a superior Nordic race and wrote: “Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria, by limiting the area and amount of their food supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat.” The book also warned: “’Finally perish!’ That is the exact alternative that confronts the white race…. If white civilization goes down, the white race is irretrievably ruined. It will be swamped by the triumphant colored races, who will eliminate the white man by elimination or absorption…We now know that men are not and never will be equal.’”
Upon the publication of Stoddard’s book, Sanger invited the author to join the board of directors of the American Birth Control League (ABCL), which Sanger founded in 1921 and headed, as its president, until 1928. Many years later, ABCL would evolve into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the largest abortion provider in the United States.
In her 1922 book, The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger attacked charity as counterproductive and dangerous because it helped save and extend the lives of poor people, thereby increasing their capacity to procreate—and adding to the sum total of “human waste.” “Organized charity is itself the symptom of a malignant social disease,” Sanger wrote. “… Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks [of people] that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant.”
In the same book, Sanger also called for the closure of maternity centers that served the prenatal and childbirth needs of poor women. By Sanger’s reckoning, such entities “would facilitate the function of maternity among the very classes in which the absolute necessity is to discourage it,” thereby contributing to a “very definite deterioration in the human stock.”
Also in The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger wrote:
- “Our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying … demonstrates our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism … [Philanthropists] encourage the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste. Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant…. We are paying for, and even submitting to, the dictates of an ever-increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.”
- “The [grosser], the more obvious, the undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind.”
Sanger’s commitment to eugenic “sexual science” dovetailed seamlessly with her Marxist vision. While she had been heartened by the success of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, she doubted that a revolution for a new communist order in the U.S. could be carried out by a proletariat class of limited intellectual capacity. Thus she sought to elevate the quality of the overall gene pool by means of eugenics. “In pointing out the limitations and fallacies of the orthodox Marxian opinion,” Sanger wrote in The Pivot of Civilization, “my purpose is not to depreciate the efforts of Socialists aiming to create a new society, but rather to emphasize what seems to me to be the greatest and most neglected truth of our day: unless sexual science is incorporated … and the pivotal importance of birth control is recognized in any program of reconstruction, all efforts to create a new world and a new civilization are foredoomed to failure.”
Sanger continued advancing her eugenic themes in 1923, when she wrote: “Birth control is not contraception indiscriminately and thoughtlessly practiced. It means the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extirpation of defective stocks—those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.”
Also in 1923, Sanger opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, the first legal clinic of its kind in the United States. Around this time as well, she married her second husband, oil businessman J. Noah H. Slee.
For most of her life, Sanger detested the Catholic Church because of its opposition to eugenics, contraception, and forced sterilization (discussed below), as well as its administration of charitable endeavors on behalf of the poor, whose procreation Sanger wished to curtail dramatically.
- In a 1924 editorial, Sanger wrote: “Our experience of the last ten years of constant fighting has been that of all the reactionary groups in the country the Roman Catholic Church is the most politically pernicious and menacing to any progressive movement. We know nothing of the Ku Klux Klan. We have covered the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Klan has neither fought us, nor stood by us…. Whenever there has been a group attack on Birth Control on the platform or in the press, it has been instigated or organized by Roman Catholics.”
- A 1928 editorial that appeared in Sanger’s The Birth Control Review warned of the “tyrannical intolerance and usurpation of power exercised by office-holders born and bred in the Roman Catholic faith.”
- In a January 1932 piece titled “The Pope’s Position on Birth control,” Sanger wrote: “My own position is that the Catholic doctrine is illogical, not in accord with science, and definitely against social welfare and race improvement. Assuming that God does want an increasing number of worshipers of the Catholic faith, does he also want an increasing number of feeble-minded, insane, criminal, and diseased worshipers?”
- Later in the 1930s, Sanger smeared Catholics as “a minority group” whose “organized bigotry” consistently “stands in the way” of enlightened social policy. “Not in isolated cases,” she elaborated, “but persistently and in all parts of the country, [Catholics are] a group which gives its first allegiance to its Church rather than to our country, holds the rest of us back…. [Committed Catholics] should isolate themselves. They have no place in community life…. Freed from the tyranny of this minority group, we can march steadily forward toward a healthier and more intelligent state.”
- In 1960 Sanger vowed that she would leave the United States forever if John F. Kennedy, whom she despised because of his Catholicism, were to win the presidency. When Kennedy was elected to the White House, however, Sanger remained a U.S. resident.
In 1925 Sanger contributed a bluntly pro-eugenics essay to the book Birth Control: Facts and Responsibilities, writing: “Birth Control is not merely an individual problem; it is not merely a national question, it concerns the whole wide world, the ultimate destiny of the human race. In his last book, Mr. [H.G.] Wells speaks of the meaningless, aimless lives which cram this world of ours, hordes of people who are born, who live, yet who have done absolutely nothing to advance the race one iota. Their lives are hopeless repetitions. All that they have said has been said before; all that they have done has been done better before. Such human weeds clog up the path, drain up the energies and the resources of this little earth. We must clear the way for a better world; we must cultivate our garden.”
At a March 1925 international birth-control event in New York City, Sanger advocated—for the “salvation of American civilization”—the sterilization of those “unfit” to procreate. In addition, she condemned the “irresponsible and reckless” rates of procreation among those “whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers.” She was referring specifically to Catholics who rejected the use of contraception. “There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people,” Sanger added, “that the procreation of this group should be stopped.”
In her quest to engineer a civilization devoid of “subnormal children,” Sanger often worked jointly with groups and individuals whose goals vis-à-vis eugenics overlapped with her own, even if their larger agendas differed from hers. In 1926, for instance, she presented a lecture on birth control to the women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey. (Writing about that event in her autobiography years later, she emphasized its success, noting that “a dozen invitations to speak to similar groups” were subsequently offered.) And in September 1930 Sanger invited Nazi anthropologist Eugen Fischer—whose ideas were cited by the Nazis to legitimize the extermination of Jews—to meet with her at her home.
In 1929, Sanger established the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control (NCFLBC), whose mission was described as follows by a New York University historical project: “The NCFLBC set out to conduct a nationwide lobbying campaign using the pressure of public opinion to convince congressional representatives to sponsor or vote for an amendment to Section 211 and other sections of the Federal Penal Code, which classified contraceptive information and supplies as obscene material and made it unlawful to import contraceptives or send contraceptive information through the mails. The Committee’s other primary goals were to educate the public about birth control and the need to amend the federal laws, and to secure the endorsements of medical associations, religious institutions, social-welfare groups, and other prominent organizations in the country.”
In 1930, Sanger and the British birth-control advocate Edith How-Martyn co-founded the Birth Control International Information Center in London, to serve as both an educational resource and a vehicle for networking among birth-control advocates worldwide.
In the April 1932 issue of The Birth Control Review, Sanger penned a piece titled “A Plan for Peace,” in which she suggested that the U.S. Congress establish a special department to study population problems and appoint a Parliament of Population. “The main objects of the Population Congress,” she wrote, “would be to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring”; to “give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization”; to “control the intake and output of morons, mental defectives, epileptics”; and to “take an inventory of the secondary group such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection, and segregate them on farms …” Sanger then went on to summarize her plea to Congress by saying that “fifteen or twenty millions of our population would then be organized into soldiers of defense—defending the unborn against their own disabilities.”
Sanger played a major role in pushing states to enforce compulsory sterilization laws, which became a common practice in the U.S. for some time. More than 60,000 Americans were sterilized against their will during the first half of the 20th century—mostly in the 1930s and ’40s, when Sanger and the birth-control and population-control movements were in their heyday. Among those targeted were the blind, the deaf, epileptics, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, and the “feeble-minded.” More than half of all U.S. states participated in these sterilizations, with Virginia, California, and Kansas leading the way.
While Sanger was proudly supportive of negative eugenics and forced sterilization, she claimed, publicly at least, to be an opponent of abortion. Indeed she often denounced the practice, as in 1932 when she wrote in The Nation that abortion “is an alternative that I cannot too strongly condemn.” “Although abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother,” Sanger added, “the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious. I bring up the subject here only because some ill-informed persons have the notion that when we speak of birth control we include abortion as a method. We certainly do not.” But as author Daniel Flynn has noted: “At the very time subscribers of The Nation read this article, Sanger was directing her employees at birth-control clinics to refer pregnant women to underground abortionists. Sanger even raised money so that these women would not have to pay for the procedure.”
In March 1934 Sanger called for the establishment of an “American Baby Code” designed to “provide for a better distribution of babies … and to protect society against the propagation and increase of the unfit.” Among the elements of this code were the following:
- “No woman shall have the legal right to bear a child, and no man shall have the right to become a father, without a permit” issued by the government.
- “No permit for parenthood shall be valid for more than one birth.”
Sanger’s fascistic decrees were, as Jonah Goldberg explains, “couched … in the argument that ‘liberated’ women wouldn’t mind such measures because they don’t really want large families in the first place.” “In a trope that would be echoed by later feminists such as Betty Friedan,” writes Goldberg, “she [Sanger] argued that motherhood itself was a socially imposed constraint on the liberty of women. It was a form of what Marxists called false consciousness to want a large family.”
When accepting an award in 1937, Sanger gave a speech on behalf of, as she put it, those “too inarticulate to speak for themselves.” The procreation of so-called undesirables, she said, “makes possible the spread of scientific knowledge of the elements of sound breeding. It makes possible the creation of a new race; a new generation brought into this world consciously conceived. It makes possible the breeding out of human weeds—the defective and criminal classes—[and] the breeding in of the clean, strong and fit instruments to carry the torch of human destiny.”
In January 1939, two of Sanger’s organizations, the Clinical Research Bureau and the American Birth Control League (ABCL), merged to form the Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA), where Sanger would serve as an honorary delegate for the next three years.
Also in 1939, Sanger turned her attention specifically to the reproductive practices of black Americans. She selected former ABCL director Clarence J. Gamble (heir of the Procter & Gamble soap company fortune) to become BCFA’s southern regional director. That November, Gamble drew up a memorandum titled “Suggestion for Negro Project,” whose ultimate aim would be to persuade blacks to use birth control as a means of radically decreasing their birth rates. “The mass of significant Negroes,” read the project’s report (quoting W.E.B. Du Bois), “still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among ignorant Negroes … is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear children properly.” Anticipating that many blacks would be suspicious of anyone exhorting them to have fewer children, BCFA presented birth control not as an attempt to diminish the size of the black population, but as a vehicle for the upward economic mobility of blacks.
For public-relations purposes, Gamble suggested that BCFA should place a number of well-known black leaders in high positions within the organization, so as to give the appearance that they had a hand in the formation of its agendas. Toward that end, Sanger hired black ministers (including the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr.), doctors, and other leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois to serve as the public face of The Negro Project. In a December 19, 1939 letter to Dr. Gamble, Sanger wrote: “It seems to me from my experience … that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table which means their ignorance, superstitions and doubts. We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the 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.”
Some anti-abortionists have interpreted the preceding sentence to mean that Sanger wished to deliberately enact a genocide against black people. Daniel Flynn addresses this notion as follows: “Did Sanger intend to ‘exterminate’ blacks? Probably not. In fact, with this letter she was actually trying to combat the notion that she sought to exterminate blacks; she wanted to enlist clergy to prevent misinformation about the program from spreading…. Regardless of intent, the effect of her program was nefarious enough—to suppress the black population.”
In a 1947 interview with reporter John Parsons, Sanger suggested that women in poor countries should completely refrain from having children for a period of ten years. In course of the interview, the following exchange took place:
Reporter: “What about the women who want babies now and in 10 years will not be able to have babies? How impractical, don’t you think?”
Sanger: “Oh, John, you sure ask hard questions. I should think that instead of being impractical, it is really very practical and intelligent and humane.”
Reporter: “But Mrs. Slee, in this country, having babies is the only thing left which is both unrationed and untaxed. Do you think that we really ought to stop?”
Sanger: “Well, I suppose a subject like that is really so personal that it is entirely left to the parent to decide, but from my view, I believe there should be no more babies in starving countries for the next 10 years.”
In the 1940s, Sanger worked on the birth-control issue in a number of European and Asian countries. In 1952 she established the International Planned Parenthood Federation, of which the Planned Parenthood Federation of America became a part. Sanger served as president of these Federations until 1959.
Sanger never gave up her devotion to eugenics. In a 1957 interview with newsman Mike Wallace, for instance, she stated: “I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world—that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin that people can can commit.”
Nor did Sanger ever abandon her communist and socialist ideals. Between 1928 and 1948, she repeatedly voted for socialist presidential candidates, including Eugene Debs in 1920 and the Socialist Party of America’s Norman Thomas several times thereafter.
The last years of Sanger’s life were filled with unhappiness. Feeling abandoned and ignored by her former comrades, she became an alcoholic and developed an addiction to the painkiller Demerol. Sanger died of arteriosclerosis on September 6, 1966 in a Tucson, Arizona nursing home.
In 2012, Sanger was named one of Time magazine’s “20 Most Influential Americans of All Time.”
Planned Parenthood actively celebrates Sanger’s legacy each year by presenting its “highest honor,” the Margaret Sanger Award, to an individual who best promotes the organization’s values and ideals. Past recipients of this award, which was instituted in 1966, include Phil Donahue (1987); Bella Abzug (1991); Faye Wattleton (1992); Justice Harry A. Blackmun, author of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion (1996); Kathleen Turner (2001); Jane Fonda (2003); Ted Turner (2004), Gloria Feldt (2005); Dolores Huerta (2007); Hillary Clinton (2009); Ellen Malcolm (2010); and Nancy Pelosi (2014). For a list of all Sanger Award winners since 1966, click here.
 Daniel J. Flynn, Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas (2004), Chapter 8. (Writes Flynn: “Sanger appropriated a younger sibling’s birth date as her own and maintained throughout her life that she was four years younger than her actual age. She went so far to foster this seemingly trivial piece of fiction that when depositing her papers at Smith College she altered her mother’s inscriptions on a family Bible that included the names and dates of birth for the Higgins children. Scholars researching her life later discovered the crude forgery.”)
 Daniel J. Flynn, Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas (2004), Chapter 8.