The Legacy of Margaret Sanger

Yesterday, one of the main outlets for all things Evangelical, Christianity Today, published an article by Rachel Marie Stone, who posted her piece on the blog Thin Places.  Stone attempts to redeem or repristinate Margaret Sanger’s legacy, which I find rather appalling.  Before I proceed any further, I want to express up front that I am setting aside the ethical and/or moral considerations regarding the different methods of birth control and contraception.  In my mind, those are secondary concerns.  For example, the ethical and moral controversy surrounding the use of abortifacients is a matter of deep concern to me; however, my primary focus is Margaret Sanger herself.

Stone’s piece turns a blind eye toward Ms. Sanger’s staunch advocacy of eugenics.  In my own research into Ms. Sanger, I have come to the preliminary conclusion that her advocacy of birth control and contraception grows out of her embrace of eugenics.  Some might be asking what in the world is eugenics?  Webster’s Dictionary defines this term as the science that tries to improve the human race by controlling which people become parents.  Eugenics blossomed during the late 19th Century due to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory under the moniker of “survival of the fittest.”  This was known as Social Darwinism.  The renowned British philosopher, ethicist, and critic, John Stuart Mill, developed eugenics alongside his utilitarian ethic.

For those who unfamiliar with utilitarianism, Webster’s Dictionary offers a couple of definitions: first, it is a belief system that asserts that a morally good action is one that helps the greatest number of people; and second, the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number.  Another way to describe this perspective is the greater good.  For example, when societies, cultures, or peoples institute laws and ethics, the basis for their implementation, according to the utilitarian ethic, rests upon achieving the greatest good for the greatest possible number.  If a law or ethic or policy fails in this endeavor, then it is to be rejected outright.

Rather than pontificate endlessly on eugenics and utilitarianism, I will let Ms. Sanger’s own words reveal to us how she sees these things playing out in government and society.  On January 17, 1932, she gave a speech before the New History Society titled “My Way to Peace.”  New York University’s website is the source for it.  I found the following portion most illuminating:

“(d) 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.

“(e) to insure the country against future burdens of maintenance for numerous offspring as may be born of feeble-minded parents, the government would pension all persons with transmissible disease who voluntarily consent to sterilization.

“(f) the whole dysgenic [or biologically defective] population would have its choice of segregation or sterilization.”

Now, allow those three points to sink for a bit.  They came straight out of the horse’s mouth.  The late Ms. Sanger is responsible for Planned Parenthood, which is the legacy that nearly everyone knows without blinking.  It is the story that receives the most airplay so to speak.  Over time, it drowns out the real darkness contained within her views.  Ms. Sanger’s speech that I quoted from is one example among many where she discusses population control (a euphemism for eugenics) and ways to implement it.

When I reflect on the above quoted points, either d, e, or f, the question that arises is who determines the population segments that are tainted, feeble-minded, or biologically defective?  Remember now, eugenics is about purifying the human race by selecting only those most capable at strengthening the human race.  On the other side of the coin is utilitarianism, which seeks to employ only those actions that achieve the greatest good for the greatest possible number.  It seems to me that those deemed tainted, feeble-minded, or biologically deficient, will be left out and deservedly so based on eugenics and utilitarianism.  Both of these fly in the face of the twin Biblical truths that God created human beings in his own image, and they bear his image.

For Christianity Today to run this piece by Ms. Stone displays at best a poor lack of judgment, or worse, the mindset of some of its editorial staff.  Eugenics poses a serious threat to those who value the sanctity of life. Every human being on this planet lacks intrinsic worth in the light of this worldview.  Eugenics has no place in the church, or in society or in our nation’s policies.  In my mind, Ms. Sanger’s true legacy has to do with masking a reprehensible science in the name of birth control and contraception.  She was no friend to the poor, the down-and-out, and the African-American.  I will end by sharing the following quote, which is an eye-opening example of Ms. Sanger’s attitude toward the African-American:

“The ministers work is also important and also he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach.  We do not want 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.”

  • Commenting on the ‘Negro Project’ in a letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble, December 10, 1939. – Sanger manuscripts, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, North Hampton, Massachusetts. Also described in Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1976.

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