Life

Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Problem

Amid grim warnings of a “left-wing cultural revolution,” one reckoning with a historical figure this week thrilled right-wing activists.

Margaret Sanger in New York City on May 10, 1961.
Margaret Sanger in New York City on May 10, 1961. AP

Across the country this summer, progressive activists have demanded—or simply executed—the dismantling of monuments to a wide variety of historical figures. Statues of Robert E. Lee, Christopher Columbus, and George Washington have been toppled; public schools and Ivy League universities have set to work removing names like Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson from their buildings. President Trump has called it a “left-wing cultural revolution.”

This week, the sprawling movement for historical reckoning arrived for one of the giants of the reproductive rights movement: Margaret Sanger, the founder of what became Planned Parenthood. On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York announced it would remove Sanger’s name from a prominent clinic in Lower Manhattan, citing her “harmful connections to the eugenics movement.” The organization said it is also working with city leaders to remove a sign designating a nearby intersection “Margaret Sanger Square.”

“We’re in a moment right now where the past is being interrogated in a way it hasn’t been before,” said Adam Cohen, author of the 2016 book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Sanger was an early 20th-century activist credited with organizing and popularizing the modern birth control movement—she even invented the term “birth control.” But she also embraced the now-discredited “science” of eugenics, which claimed that society would benefit from discouraging the “wrong” people from reproducing. Cohen called Planned Parenthood’s decision “a long-overdue recognition of the role Margaret Sanger played in eugenics.”

Sanger is in many ways a more politically fraught figure than other so-called victims of the “left-wing cultural revolution.” The most sustained calls for her dethroning over the last several decades have come not from progressives or academic historians but from anti-abortion activists and conservative politicians. Ted Cruz headed an effort to remove her bust from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2015, claiming she aimed for “the extermination of African-Americans.” Clarence Thomas cited Sanger’s eugenic views at length in a ruling last year on an Indiana abortion law.

So, unsurprisingly, Planned Parenthood’s opponents in the abortion wars have generally greeted this week’s reversal with triumphant I-told-you-sos. “It took them long enough,” the president of Feminists for Life of America, Serrin Foster, wrote in the Catholic magazine America, calling the change “a welcome acknowledgment of historical fact.” The Susan B. Anthony List—an activist group named for a feminist foremother they claim was anti-abortion—issued a statement calling for Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton to return their Margaret Sanger awards from Planned Parenthood, the organization’s highest honor, issued between 1966 and 2015. (A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood did not respond to a question about why the organization stopped issuing the award.)

For Sanger’s defenders, this made the decision by the New York chapter a painful concession. “I have some sympathy for the complications attached to Sanger as a result of 30 years of unrelenting attacks from the right, and to some extent from the left,” said Ellen Chesler, the author of a 1992 biography of Sanger and a former Planned Parenthood board member. “The complexities of her time and of the politics of eugenics don’t lend themselves well to simple explanations and tweets. It’s a real problem. But I think it’s a bigger problem to repudiate her without explaining those circumstances. It hands the appearance of victory to the wrong people.”

Planned Parenthood has grappled with its founder’s views with increasing directness over the years. In 2016, its centenary, the group issued an eight-page document framed as an answer to “opposition claims about Margaret Sanger” that defended Sanger’s legacy but conceded that she favored the sterilization of many people with disabilities, strict regulations on immigration by the “feebleminded,” and more. Another 2016 document on Sanger described her as “complex and imperfect,” and denounced her views on eugenics, which it explored in some detail.

“They have been trying to have it both ways with Sanger for a long time—to profit off her name and her historical importance on the one hand, and completely look the other way concerning some of her core beliefs,” said Angela Franks, a Catholic theologian who wrote a 2005 book on Sanger’s eugenic beliefs. “This is the beginning of reassessing the legacy that Sanger has left them.”

“Margaret Sanger championed birth control and she supported the racist ideology of eugenics—both are true,” the chief equity and engagement officer at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, Merle McGee, said in a statement. “By saying this, we disarm a tool anti-abortion opponents use to shame women of color, especially Black women, from seeking the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health care. More importantly we recognize what women of color have always known and navigated to access our health services and what reproductive justice leaders have been calling on our organization to do for decades.”

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, which is the national organization’s largest affiliate group, has described the move as the result of ongoing conversations with activists on the left. The name change is a piece of an ongoing three-year internal examination whose stated goals include “reckon[ing] with Planned Parenthood’s legacy and contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.”

The eugenics movement was extraordinarily popular in the early 20th century, particularly in the elite circles in which Sanger traveled. Movement leaders included Harvard faculty and administrators. The American Museum of Natural History hosted an international eugenics meeting. The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in 1927 the state of Virginia could sterilize anyone deemed “feebleminded” or otherwise unworthy; the majority opinion was written by revered jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Chesler and Cohen both independently mentioned a heated discussion they got into about Sanger’s role in that case at a panel discussion a few years ago. “He and I almost had a fistfight,” Chesler said. “Adam is a very smart guy and a very nice guy, but he’s just wrong about this.”) And the idea was popular with the public, too. A 1937 poll in Fortune magazine found that two-thirds of the American public supported forced sterilization for the mentally disabled. The only significant institutional opposition to the eugenics movement, particularly the push for widespread sterilization, came from the Catholic Church.

There is a fine line between supporting family planning for the sake of individual families, and supporting it because you believe it’s better for society to keep certain families small. Sanger’s beliefs were complex, but her broad support for the movement is unmistakable. She invited top eugenicists to join the board of her clinic, and welcomed them as contributors to her magazine. “The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the overfertility of the mentally and physically defective,” she wrote in 1921. In her book The Pivot of Civilization the next year, Sanger criticized aid to “slum mothers” on the grounds that it “would facilitate the function of maternity among the very classes in which the absolute necessity is to discourage it.”

Sanger’s defenders argue that there’s no evidence her views on eugenics were motivated by racial animus. Sanger opened a clinic in Harlem, and worked closely with Black leaders to reach poor Black women in the rural South. In accepting the first Margaret Sanger Award in 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about “the striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.” “These were almost ubiquitous views, that somehow biology could be improved to better the human race,” Chesler said. “The people who held them did not see the incoherence between that and their racially progressive positions.”

Considering the widespread popularity of eugenics within elite circles in Sanger’s day, the question is: Where does the reckoning go from here? “I think Planned Parenthood is really brave, and it’s the right thing to do,” Cohen said. “I hope more institutions look at their histories and talk about their roles in this chapter.”

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