Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s racism and support for eugenics have always been inextricable from its mission. Removing her name from their NYC clinic is a (belated) start, but without real atonement, it’s a cop-out.
The birth control behemoth announced on Tuesday it would strip Sanger’s name from its Manhattan clinic, and it plans to petition the Community Board to remove the “Margaret Sanger Square” street sign from the intersection where the building sits. However, such cosmetic reforms don’t even begin to address Sanger’s – and Planned Parenthood’s – problematic history.
Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in part to discourage reproduction among “undesirables” – the mentally and physically handicapped, but also the poor and black. Indeed, one of her most notorious efforts, the ‘Negro Project’, was focused (as the name suggests) on pushing birth control onto the black community in the South. She believed black people “breed carelessly and disastrously,” and wanted to put a stop to it. And while her defenders have countered that those specific words were lifted from black author WEB Du Bois, she expressed the same idea throughout her career.
From the Negro Project arose perhaps her most controversial quote. “We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population,” Sanger wrote to fellow eugenicist and Procter & Gamble founder Clarence Gamble in 1939, explaining that her organization should train black ministers to “straighten out” any “rebellious” black people who get that idea into their heads, and black doctors to gain the trust of the targeted community. Sanger apologists have claimed this means the opposite of what it says, but there are plenty of words she could have used other than “rebellious” if she had meant to imply such extermination was an incorrect interpretation of her organization’s contraception efforts.
Those apologists also argue that eugenics was all the rage in those pre-World War II days before the term conjured up Nazi medical experiments, insisting Sanger was merely a product of her time. But the contraception pioneer – who spoke before the Ku Klux Klan and believed reproduction should require a government-issued permit – had more than a passing trendy appetite for the practice. She praised Germany’s sterilization program back in 1934, stating she admired “the courage of a government that takes a stand on sterilization of the unfit,” and while she clarified that “unfit” should not refer to race or religion, that was a relatively new position for the Planned Parenthood founder. Just over a decade previously, she’d written “Negroes and Southern Europeans are mentally inferior to native born Americans.”
Nor was her list of gene-pool disqualifiers limited to inborn characteristics: in 1918, she called for the “poverty-stricken classes” to be forcibly sterilized if they would not limit their reproduction voluntarily, stating, “All of our problems are the result of overbreeding among the working class.”
There’s something to be said for empowering women to control their fertility, of course – little of the social progress women have made in the intervening decades would have been possible if they were forever barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. But Sanger was quite open about weaponizing birth control for eugenic purposes.
This eugenicist current at the heart of PP did not die with Sanger, though the defeat of the Nazis forced its proponents to shroud it in a more socially acceptable vocabulary. The organization began advocating for the liberalization – and ultimately repeal – of abortion laws under the guidance of board members like population control enthusiast William Gates Sr (father of fellow population control enthusiast and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates).
Planned Parenthood is often accused of siting its clinics in low-income and black neighborhoods in order to prey on these communities, and more black babies are aborted in New York City than are actually born – a disturbing statistic no matter how much one believes in a woman’s right to control what happens in her womb.
Nor is the compulsory sterilization Sanger advocated for a thing of the past. While the days when 60,000 Americans were medically sterilized amid the nation’s eugenics-mania are over, some of those laws remain on the books, covering for state-sponsored sterilization of female prison inmates – most of whom are black or Hispanic.
To their credit, PP appears to understand that removing Sanger’s name is at once long overdue and utterly insufficient to address its history. In a press release issued on Tuesday, the group explained it is already a year into a community-assisted reckoning with its racist and eugenicist past – a program it has dubbed ‘Reviving Radical’, intended to “shape a new vision for [Planned Parenthood]’s relationship in the community” – and said that renaming the clinic is part and parcel of a larger reform process.
Unfortunately, the program’s description reeks of the cosmetic tweaks many organizations have been deploying in the past weeks to recast themselves as “woke” without significantly altering problematic business practices.
Alongside vague, if encouraging, pledges to “reckon with Planned Parenthood’s legacy and contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color,” there’s White Fragility-style babble like “divest from and dismantle white dominant organizational cultural norms and values” and “center communities of color voice, experience and knowledge of self.”
The trend of superficial reckoning sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement has led to a lot of hasty renaming, largely unaccompanied by a deeper examination of the history being memory-holed.
This does a disservice both to the minority groups in whose name this whitewashing is performed, and to the future generations who will have to live with the fallout from this sloppy revisionism.
If Planned Parenthood is serious about reconciling its eugenicist roots with a genuine desire to help women take control of their lives by controlling their fertility, it has an opportunity to air its dirty laundry, atone for its crimes against black and poor women, and serve as an example for other groups who would rather learn from the past than run from it. Simply ‘canceling’ Margaret Sanger and declaring “mission accomplished” is not enough.