Planned Parenthood of Greater New York announced they will remove their founder’s name from their building because of her documented ties to the eugenics movement in the early 20th century.
The decision came as part of the organization’s commitment to an equity initiative called Reviving Radical, a three-year-long project that started in 2019 that brought in “over 300 New Yorkers in Black and Brown communities in deep sharing, listening, and learning to understand how our organizational history and perceptions of Margaret Sanger, have and continue to impact communities of color,” according to the web page.
Karen Seltzer, Board Chair at PPGNY said in a press release:
The removal of Margaret Sanger’s name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood’s contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color. Margaret Sanger’s concerns and advocacy for reproductive health have been clearly documented, but so too has her racist legacy. There is overwhelming evidence for Sanger’s deep belief in eugenic ideology, which runs completely counter to our values at PPGNY. Removing her name is an important step toward representing who we are as an organization and who we serve.
Margaret Sanger is a Pioneer of Birth Control Rights For Women But She Also Believed in the Selective Breeding of Humans
On Oct. 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne and fellow women’s reproductive health activist, Fania Mindell, opened a birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Sanger, a nurse, had been an outspoken advocate for birth control after growing up in poverty as her mother gave birth to 11 children before dying at the age of 50 (some reports say 40) from health ravages Sanger attributed to the toll the pregnancies and births took on her body, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
At the time, the idea of birth control was considered taboo — something only spoken about in whispers between women. Information on contraception was illegal to distribute under the Comstock Law, but “Sanger strongly believed that the ability to control family size was crucial to ending the cycle of women’s poverty,” according to NWHM.
She was arrested for opening her birth control clinic but didn’t give up. According to NWHM, “Sanger made it her mission to provide women with birth control information and repeal the federal Comstock Law, which prohibited the distribution of obscene materials through the mails, and regarded birth control information as such.”
It took decades, but Sanger’s work in fighting the law led to landmark decisions for women’s access to contraception.
While Sanger was a pioneer in gaining some of the rights women have today regarding the use of birth control, she also was involved with the eugenics movement, a system of breeding out what were considered flaws in humanity, often by sterilizing those with those perceived flaws, sometimes by force.
Eugenics, which means “well-born” stemmed from the idea that you can breed plants and animals to get the most desired results, so why not humans?
According to a circa 1927 publication released by the Eugenics Record Office, eugenics sought “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.”
Eugenics researches believed they could study families that had “undesirable traits” and because they believed those traits were genetic they could remove those genes from the population by eliminating the possibility of those who were “unfit” to procreate, according to an article published in the journal, Nature.
“Regrettably, this sentiment manifested itself in a widespread effort to prevent individuals who were considered to be “unfit” from having children,” and policies were created to remove “the related genes from the population. Unfortunately, such policies often included involuntary sterilization or institutionalization,” Nature reported.
Proponents believed that if they could control human reproduction they could eliminate things like mental retardation, psychiatric illnesses, and physical disabilities. These practices were advocated by scientists, doctors, and lawmakers.
Eugenics advocates had limited scientific knowledge due to the era and thought they could breed out things like criminality, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and “feeblemindedness, a catchall term used to describe varying degrees of mental retardation and learning disabilities. The possibility that environmental factors (such as poor housing, poor nutrition, and inadequate education) might influence the development of these traits was dismissed,” according to Nature.
Sanger’s Views on Race Have Long Been Debated & Her Advocation for Eugenics Overshadows Her Legacy
In 2004 Planned Parenthood published a fact sheet called, “Opposition Claims About Margaret Sanger,” in which they point out that many racist comments attributed to her were not actually written by her but by those writing about her. In today’s announcement, they change their tune when they refer to her “racist legacy.”
Sanger often focused on the poorest communities, including the Black communities, to emphasize how the inability to control how many children a couple had meant they would all be stuck in a cycle of poverty in perpetuity.
Whatever Sanger’s beliefs about African-American’s are believed to be all these years later — because controversy on that has been ongoing for many years — her extensive writings main focus over and over again are on the need for birth control to allow for better lives for the impoverished and better health for women and the children they bear.
In one essay titled, “Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose ,” could be considered subjective. She wrote, “The Negro race has reached a place in its history when every possible effort should be made to have every Negro child count as a valuable contribution to the future of America. Negro parents, like all parents, must create the next generation from strength, not from weakness; from health, not from despair.”
In 1939 Sanger spearheaded the Negro Project, an effort to bring birth control options to Black communities in the south, yet it was considered by some to be a means to lower the birth rate of Black babies. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project reported:
The public rationale for the Project was rooted in economics, tax-payer burden, and the social threats posed by what was perceived to be an exploding black underclass, rather than the health and sexual liberation of Black women. And there is no doubt that a good number of medical professionals involved in the birth control movement exhibited strong racist sentiments, some of them arguing for and even carrying out compulsory sterilization on Black women considered to be of low intelligence and therefore not capable of choosing not to control their fertility, as well as on those deemed morally or behaviorally deviant. But there is no evidence that Sanger or even the Federation coerced or intended to coerce Black women into using birth control. The fundamental belief, underscored at every meeting, mentioned in much of the behind-the-scenes correspondence, and evident in all the printed material put out by the Division of Negro Service, was that uncontrolled fertility presented the greatest burden to the poor, and Southern Blacks were among the poorest Americans. In fact, the Negro Project did not differ very much from the earlier birth control campaigns in the rural South designed to test simpler methods on poor, uneducated and mostly white agricultural communities. Following these other efforts in the South, it would have been more racist, in Sanger’s mind, to ignore African-Americans in the South than to fail at trying to raise the health and economic standards of their communities.
According to NWHM, Sanger was so vehement about birth control that it sometimes had unintended consequences. Her time involved with the eugenics movement and the idea of using birth control methods to breed out “undesirable” humans is well documented. While “she disagreed with the racial and class focus of the eugenics movement, her association with it tarnished her reputation,” NWHM reported.
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