The hidden history of Margaret Sanger

Elijah Robinson, Opinion Editor

With the recent controversy regarding abortion in Texas, growing from a widespread misconstruing of the scope of Planned Parenthood’s purpose in various communities across the United States, it is a good time to look back at its founder: Margaret Sanger.

Margaret Sanger was a writer, activist and nurse in the early 1900s. Her roots in activism began with her participation in the Industrial Workers of the World. She became familiar with social activists and socialist philosophy this way.

During her time working as a nurse, she came across working-class immigrant women who’ve given birth or did self-induced abortions due to their lack of sex education. Contraceptives and information about birth control were illegal under the Comstock Act, as they were considered obscene.

Together with working-class struggle, and women’s lack of control over reproduction, Sanger saw an opportunity to help women be part of necessary social change.

“Enforced motherhood…is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty, ” Sanger said  in 1914.

Sanger was opposed to abortion, except in cases where the mother was in danger.

Sanger started a monthly newsletter, “The Woman Rebel”, promoting contraception. A new term for its time, “birth control”, was used instead of terms that were meant to skirt around the Comstock Act.

This challenged the censorship laws at the time. Several issues of the newsletter were suppressed by authorities, but Sanger kept publishing.

It was with her pamphlet, “Family Limitation,” that she was charged with violating the Comstock Act. Before she went to trial, she fled to England.

During her time in England, Sanger strengthened her rhetoric regarding the argument for birth control. She incorporated concepts such as overpopulation, war and famine as reasons why birth control must be accessible to all.

While traveling around Europe, she was influenced by the liberal policies regarding female birth control, such as the use diaphragms as a reliable form of contraceptive. She, along with others smuggled diaphragms from Europe to the United States.

Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Despite this being illegal under New York law at the time, banning the distribution of contraceptives, she continued to see women in the clinic until charged and convicted of breaking this law.

She shifted gears and founded the American Birth Control League in 1916. Under this group, the first legal birth control clinic in the United States was created: the Clinical Research Bureau. This group would eventually become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

During the 1920s, she became an accomplished author, selling thousands of books to women trying to learn more about birth control as the movement progressed.

Her popularity spread to the African-American community, whose leaders saw a need for birth control. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. Dubois and George Schuyler contributed to the “Birth Control Review ”, writing concurring reasons why birth control would be a good idea for African-American families who were impoverished and disenfranchised.

Her message of women controlling their reproductive system coincided with the growing eugenics movement. This movement sought to create a master race, and weed out those determined to be undesirables. In the United States, this came in the form of anti-miscegenation laws, and other forms of racial segregation.

In order to bring her message to the mainstream, Sanger had to frame birth control as a useful tool for population control. According to Sanger, “Before eugenics and others who are laboring for racial betterment can succeed, they must first clear the way for Birth Control.”

Her editorial “Birth Control Review” subtly pushed for eugenics and population control. This editorial attracted the attention of the Nazis, as well as white supremacists in the United States.

Sanger was credited as saying “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.”

With anti-abortion sentiment strong in many parts of the United States, many pro-life activists and politicians use this as an argument to say Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood was founded on the principle of creating a master race, especially with the objective of eliminating the Black race and other minorities.

Sanger’s legacy has slowly been reevaluated within the context of the times she was active. During World War II, eugenics and racism was at its strongest and this ideology was popular among the people Sanger needed to appeal to.

Unlike the common beliefs associated with eugenics, she did not believe poverty and crime were hereditary. She believed that birth control would allow families great control over their future.

With the introduction of the first oral contraceptive in 1960, it was revolutionary for its cheap, safe and efficient means of preventing pregnancies. The birth control pill meant women no longer had to choose between having a family or having a career.

Sanger was not a racist, but co-opted racist rhetoric to promote birth control.