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A Woman With A Plan: The Real Story Of Margaret Sanger

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A Woman With A Plan: The Real Story Of Margaret Sanger


Sanger’s so-called Negro Project has been a source of controversy first raised by black nationalists and some feminist scholars in the 1970s and later by anti-abortion foes. Respecting the importance of self-determination among users of contraception, she recruited prominent black leaders to endorse the goal, especially ministers who held sway over the faithful. In that context, she wrote an unfortunate sentence in a private letter about needing to clarify the ideals and goals of the birth control movement because “we do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” The sentence may have been thoughtlessly composed, but it is perfectly clear that she was not endorsing genocide.

America’s intensely complicated politics of race and gender has long ensnarled Sanger and all others who have sought to discipline reproduction. As many scholars of the subject in recent years have observed, much of the controversy proceeds from the plain fact that reproduction is by its very nature experienced individually and socially at the same time. In claiming women’s fundamental right to control their own bodies, Sanger remained mindful of the dense fabric of cultural, political, and economic relationships in which those rights are exercised.

In most instances the policies Sanger advocated were intended to observe the necessary obligation of social policy to balance individual rights of self-expression with the sometimes contrary desire to promulgate and enforce common mores and laws. She may have failed to get the balance quite right, but there is nothing in the record to poison her reputation or discredit her noble cause. Quite the contrary.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. may have put it best in 1966, when he accepted Planned Parenthood’s prestigious Margaret Sanger Award and spoke eloquently of the “kinship” between the civil rights and family planning movements. Here is what he said, since it bears repeating:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister… She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning.

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

1 Comment

  1. kurt.lorentzen November 3, 2011

    Kudos for making this politically-incorrect point despite the damage it may cause you. The truth hurts, just as much today as nearly a century ago. Where we have progressed at least to the point that such topics as sexuality and contraception can be discussed, the driving points of Sanger’s position are as taboo as ever, maybe even more so. The movie “idiocracy” points out the direction we’re taking. Black Americans (not just a fringe) cite race as the one-size-fits-all reasoning behind everything from Cain’s assertion of “preventing Blacks from having babies” to Morgan Freeman’s statement that the reason Republicans want to defeat Obama is “because he is a Black president” – Herman Cain doesn’t count as a “real” Black man because he is a corporate wolf in sheep’s clothing – and the rationalizations continue so as not to dilute the race issues. Population will soon be the greatest problem facing humanity. Our 7,000,000,000 cannot be supported without cheap, abundant energy – oil – that is already in decline. Like it or not, intelligent people are having fewer children as the population of the intellectually inferior rises. How’s that for political incorrectness? I’m not so sure about eugenics. Although it makes sense from a scientific standpoint, it’s also true that we evolved intellectually without deliberate genetic manipulation. Modern medicine has largely taken natural selection out of the equation where essentially everyone survives to reproductive age regardless of their physical or mental abilities. In that sense, if eugenics artificially simulates, or even enhances, natural selection then it may be viable, but there’s also plenty of room for shenanigans. Sanger had the guts to speak the truth as she saw it, and with all the incorrectness she’s pretty much on the money. As the years progess, I believe we’ll see just how right she was. Hopefully we’ll get it before it’s too late.


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