I may have said enough on Twitter about Rachel Marie Stone’s post on contraception and Margaret Sanger, but it’s hard to be perfectly clear on Twitter, so let me spell out my thoughts here.
First: the post’s title suggests that it’s a defense of contraception, but Stone described it on Twitter as a defense of Margaret Sanger. It would have been a better post if it had tried to do one of those things rather than both. Sanger is an immensely controversial figure — especially among evangelical and Catholic Christians, thanks to the leading role the organization Sanger created, Planned Parenthood, plays in providing abortions — so it is rhetorically disastrous, in a blog post written for a Christian magazine, to link advocacy of contraception to a defense of Sanger. As Stone’s post shows, we have in the lives of poor families around the world more immediate and convincing evidence for the value of contraception. Why bring Sanger into it? Her presence won’t reassure those already sympathetic, and will surely alienate those who doubt.
Unless defending Sanger, as Stone’s tweet suggests, is the main point. If so, then there’s another problem. Stone writes, “Sanger, like many medical professionals in her day, did hold eugenicist ideas. Eugenics were enshrined into compulsory sterilization laws in many U.S. states and supported by organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I do not mean to excuse Sanger for holding these views, but I do want to give the charge of ‘eugenicist’ a more complete background.” I’m not sure what Stone means by “a more complete background,” but this statement seems rather evasive — and that leads me (or will, eventually) to what I think is an especially important point.
Sanger wasn’t “charged” with being a eugenicist — she warmly claimed the title and devoted much of her long and highly energetic life to advocating for the elimination of the “unfit.” Indeed, a thorough reading of Sanger’s works suggests that her devotion to contraception was merely instrumental to the greater cause of cleansing American society of people she thought unworthy of life. When New York University released its Margaret Sanger Papers Project, David Tell summarized what those papers teach us about Sanger’s eugenicist and racist views:
Sanger did, in fact, endorse the federal government’s post-World War I immigration restrictions, during a Vassar College speech on “racial betterment” in February 1924, and she was “glad” the laws were “drastic” enough to help control “the quality of our population.” She worried, though, about the “increasing race of morons” already on our shores, and expressed disgust that the American people should be taxed to fund welfare spending for the “maintenance and perpetuation of these undesirables.” When we consider that “a moron’s vote is as good as an intelligent, educated, [thinking] citizen,” Sanger advised, “we well pause and ask ourselves: ‘Is America really safe for Democracy?’”
Sanger did, indeed, call the “morons” who so disgusted her “human weeds”; it’s there on page 386, and the book’s editors tell us she “often” employed the analogy. And she did, too, believe that “ethnic community” was something the race-betterment gardener should want to consider when he was trying to decide which “weeds” to attack with his hoe. “The Jewish people and Italian families,” she complained to the New York State legislature in 1923, “are filling the insane asylums” and “hospitals” and “feeble-minded institutions,” and it was wrong that taxpayers should have to subsidize the “multiplication of the unfit” this way. Better that the state should save its money “to spend on geniuses.”
At one point, Sanger classified eighty-five million Americans as “mediocre to imbecile.” At another, she proposed a total, five-year, nationwide moratorium on childbirth.
What I want to note about this summary — chilling enough in itself — is what it tells is about Sanger’s place in American culture, especially in the heyday of her influence (especially the 1920s). Sanger did not just “hold eugenicist ideas”; she was one of our nation’s most passionate and widely-respected advocates for those ideas. She’s speaking at Vassar, addressing the New York State Legislature, giving speeches around the country, writing popular books — including one in which she wrote, “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” Indeed, Sanger may have done more than any other single person to keep “scientific racism,” eugenicism, and persecution of the disabled in the main stream of America thought.
It was this ceaseless, tireless, and very successful advocacy for some very nasty beliefs and practices that sets Sanger apart from others who happened to “hold eugenicist ideas.”
In this respect we might compare Sanger to someone like George Wallace: racism was horribly widespread in the South in Wallace’s time, but unlike the people who simply breathed it in through the cultural air, he celebrated it, exacerbated it, and relentlessly incited and fanned the flames of race hatred. Few today would attempt to renew and defend populist politics by looking to the example of George Wallace. Maybe Wallace did have some good policies; maybe he wrenched some power away from the 1% of Alabama and empowered the (white) working class. Maybe; but who cares? Nor should anyone care: he hitched his wagon to the cause of a malicious and absolutist racism, and deserves all the opprobrium he gets.
The same should be true of Margaret Sanger. Did she do some good? Indeed she did. But those who want to further the good things she achieved should treat her leading ideas, the ideas she devoted her greatest energies to spreading, with the utter contempt they deserve, not dismiss them as mere peccadilloes characteristic of her time and place. Nor should people who simply note what Sanger actually and repeatedly thought and said be accused of “demonizing” her — something that I’ve heard more than a few times in the last 24 hours. That’s a smokescreen and an evasion.
The cause of contraception would be far better served by simply ignoring Sanger; that would have the further merit of being merciful towards her.