News & Sanger Sightings > 2010
Billboards put up in Atlanta in February with the message: “Black children are an endangered species,” re-energized the campaign among anti-abortion activists to vilify Sanger as a racist and led to a flurry of articles in the national news (See, for instance, “Anti-Abortion Billboards On Race Split Atlanta,” New York Times , Feb. 6; “Georgia Ads Link Race, Abortion,” Newsday , Feb. 15; “Antiabortion Activists See a Racial Conspiracy,” Los Angeles Times , March 2, 2010). The billboards, over 65 in number, link to a website ( www.toomanyaborted.com ) that claims Sanger wanted to reduce the black population. The site includes a short explanation on the Negro Project that contends Sanger tried to do away with “a certain type of black individual.” Even though it draws from articles in the MSPP Newsletter that discuss Sanger’s work within the black community and in conjunction with local and national black leaders to help poor African-American women have access to safe and reliable contraception, the site ignores the documentary evidence. For example it features Sanger’s statement to Clarence Gamble in September 1939 that “we do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population . . . .” This statement, which has gone viral on the Internet, is presented out of context and doesn’t reflect the fact that Sanger recognized elements within the black community might mistakenly associate the Negro Project with racist sterilization campaigns in the Jim Crow south, unless clergy and other community leaders spread the word that the Project had a humanitarian aim. No serious scholar and none of the dozens of black leaders who supported Sanger’s work have ever suggested that she tried to reduce the black population or set up black abortion mills, the implication in much of the extremist anti-choice material.
One of the unfortunate assumptions here is that African-American women were coerced into using family planning or abortion, implying among other things, that they didn’t have minds of their own on the matter. But as a recent article by Shalia Dewan in the New York Times points out: "Black women were eager for birth control even before it was popularized by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and black doctors who provided illegal abortions were lauded as community heroes."
“Some male African-American leaders were so furious about what they perceived as genocidal intentions that in one case they burned down a clinic,” said Carole Joffe, the author of Dispatches From the Abortion Wars . “But women were very resolute, saying, ‘We want birth control.’ ” (Shalia Dewan, “To Court Blacks, Foes of Abortion Make Racial Case,” New York Times , Feb. 27, 2010.)
An article by Loretta Ross , the director of SisterSong, the women of color reproductive health collective in Atlanta, was quoted in a related story in the Guardian newspaper in London. Ross wrote that the contributions of African-American women “to the birth control and abortion movements in the United States have been obscured by racist and sexist assumptions about us, our sexuality, and our fertility.” Ross was also quoted in the L.A. Times story, saying that “It’s a very complicated picture. There was a eugenics movement, and it did target black people. But when Margaret Sanger first started, it was black women who came to her.” (Latoya Peterson, “Reproductive Justice for All,” Guardian.co.uk, March 5, 2010; Los Angeles Times , March 2, 2010.)
Unfortunately, the storm of attacks against Sanger is even changing how some reproductive rights activists publicly regard Sanger’s legacy. Following an incident in Providence, Rhode Island in February, when Rep. Patrick Kennedy , a panelist in a healthcare forum, had a DVD (a documentary on Sanger and Planned Parenthood’s alleged involvement in black genocide) thrown at him, Susan Yolen , vice president for public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, said that “Margaret Sanger . . . must be recognized for her work in the birth-control field,” but she had “very misguided beliefs about people of low incomes, different races and low abilities.” ( Providence Journal , Feb. 18, 2010.)
Too rarely do we get a clear and balanced view of the problem. Arthur G. Broadhurst, writing in his “Christian Humanist” blog on AlterNet ( http://blogs.alternet.org/christianhumanist ), takes on the propaganda film about Sanger and black genocide, “Maafa 21,” which uses (or misuses) MSPP materials to indict the work of the Negro Project. He writes, “There are legitimate issues that can and should be discussed rationally in the abortion wars but rarely are. The anti-abortion movement seems intent on continually putting out misinformation, distorting facts, rewriting history, demonizing abortion rights supporters and mis-characterizing the work of Planned Parenthood.” He adds that “Maafa 21” is “part of an ongoing national smear campaign against Margaret Sanger by activists in the anti-abortion movement, often repeated in their publications which copy each other, but without any factual basis.”
posted April 2010
Start When They’re Young
Russell Shorto recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine (“Founding Father?” February 14, 2010) that a social conservative member of the Texas State Board of Education appealed to his colleagues for Sanger to be included in the state history curriculum, not because she was a social reformer and birth control pioneer, but to emphasize that she “and her followers promoted eugenics.”
posted April 2010
Pill Turns 50
This spring should see a flurry of news articles noting the 50 th anniversary of the FDA’s approval of the birth control pill on May 9, 1960. One of the first ran on January 15 on MercatorNet (http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/50_years_of_the_pill/), a commentary website on ethical and policy debates. Physician and bioethics writer Jose A. Bufill reviews Sanger’s organizational contributions to the creation of the pill, and writes, “Margaret Sanger led the campaign in the US that would gradually -- over decades -- desensitize the general public on matters of sex. A brilliant and remarkably tenacious woman, she wrote pamphlets, published newspapers and books, smuggled birth control devices, founded birth control clinics and got arrested -- all to raise the issue of birth control from the perspective of women’s rights, at the same time publicly downplaying her own anarchist and eugenicist leanings. She succeeded in her efforts, and she and her friends were pleasantly surprised when after the pill’s release in 1960, popular opposition to birth control rapidly diminished.”
posted April 2010
Sanger Turns 130!
Several publications and web sites noted Margaret Sanger’s birthday this past September 14th. She would have been 130 years old, although she would have insisted she was only 124.
posted Jan. 2010
Vox of Reason?
An argument over Sanger’s legacy flared up in Princeton University’s Daily Princetonian (dailyprincetonian.com) in early October. Student Aaron Smargon sent in an op-ed piece to the paper on October 6 accusing Pro-Choice Vox, a student reproductive rights group, of “being ignorant” and “inadvertently sponsoring homage to a racist radical” – Margaret Sanger. Smargon had attended a Pro-Choice Vox open-house birthday party and commemoration for Sanger in September. Despite the cake, games and free condoms, he was not amused, writing that “Pro-Choice Vox’ poorly chosen event turns from unjustified to unconscionable when one considers just how controversial a figure Margaret Sanger was, not simply in the early 20th century, but “even by today’s liberal standards.” He labeled Sanger “a self-admitted eugenicist, classist and racist,” and found her “Negro Project” to be her most objectionable achievement, suggesting that it led to efforts to reduce the African-American population by way of “abortion recommendation centers.” In reality, the Negro Project was an effort to extend contraceptive services to poor African-American women in several rural counties in the South. The program was supported by the black community and prominent black leaders across the country. Abortions, illegal at the time, were not offered through the Project’s clinics. Smargon asks “what exactly is Pro-Choice Vox celebrating? Is it Planned Parenthood’s racist roots?”
The three co-leaders of the Pro-Choice Vox, Martha Ferguson, Sierra Gronewald, and Amelia Thompson-DeVaux, responded on October 8 with their own op-ed article in the Princetonian. They were disappointed that Smargon had not engaged them on these issues at the open house and called his attack on Sanger a diversion to “cloak what is really an assault on reproductive choice.” However, they acknowledged that “Sanger was not a saint,” and “held views . . . we also consider offensive.” They compared her “role in eugenics” with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sexism and Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy as a slave owner. That Sanger “wasn’t perfect” and “very human,” they say is beside the point; what Smargon is really upset about “is not Sanger’s views on eugenics, but reproductive freedom.” They added, “We are strongly committed to Sanger’s vision of providing affordable birth control and reproductive care to everyone. And we’re willing to talk about abortion, contraception and even sexual ethics as long as it’s a balanced debate that refrains from unproductive finger-pointing and dubious reductionist conclusions.”
This discussion continues a recent trend of reproductive rights advocates accepting charges that Sanger was a racist when the enormous collection of papers she left us says otherwise. Sanger was clear and consistent in all of her statements, speeches, and writings that contraception was every woman’s right, regardless of race or class.
posted Jan. 2010
Lessons from Leaders
Gloria Feldt, the women's activist, author, past president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and commentator on leadership, gave a talk titled, “Convictions to Action: Margaret Sanger’s Legacy and Leadership Lessons” at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on September 13. Noting her close proximity to the first birth control clinic in America, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and acknowledging Sanger’s 130th birthday, Feldt focused her talk on Sanger’s life and approach to leading a reform movement. She said “I’ve often turned to Margaret Sanger for inspiration, courage, and practical examples of movement building in the face of both external opposition and institutional resistance.” And she began by describing Sanger as a “visionary and practical, courageous and cranky, idealistic and pragmatic, a redheaded, green-eyed feminist socialist who died a registered Republican, mother, grandmother, sexual adventurer, a woman of many contradictions—but then aren’t we all? The personal and political are intertwined in her life as in mine, and probably yours.” For the nine leadership lessons Feldt learned from Sanger’s life and work, visit her web site: www.gloriafeldt.com.
posted Jan. 2010
Vices and Devices
A new exhibit, "Virtue, Vice, and Contraband: A History of Contraception in America," opened in September at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Designed by Dittrick staff and guest curator Jimmy Wilkinson Meyer, a birth control scholar and MSPP friend, the exhibit examines 200 years of the history of contraception in the United States and covers Sanger’s activism and the creation of clinics. According to a press release, “The exhibit reveals a longstanding ignorance of essential facts of human conception. For example, a woman’s ovulation time was not discovered until the 1930s by two doctors, Kyusaku Ogino in Japan and Hermann Knaus in Austria. Before and after this finding, desperate women went to great length to prevent pregnancies. The exhibit explores less well known (and dangerous) methods such as douching with Lysol or eating poisonous herbs like pennyroyal, as well as conventional means such as the IUD or the birth control pill.” For more information, go to www.cwru.edu/artsci/dittrick.
posted Jan. 2010
Nobel Peace Tries
The hullabaloo over President Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize called our attention to the Nobel Committee’s Nomination Database, which allows you to search for nominees up until 1956. Sanger, who did not receive the prize, despite an extensive lobbying effort by a group of supporters, was nominated in 1953-56. The nominators listed include: civil libertarian Zechariah Chafee; Smith College professor Harold Faulkner; Uppsala University professor Ingemar Hedenius; Philip Jessup, a Member of the Institute of International Law in Belgium; Isao Kitaoka, a professor in Tokyo; Alvar Nelson, a professor in Denmark; Northeastern University professor Elmor Cutts; and Harvard University professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.
posted Jan. 2010
Photo courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
Revised: March 5, 2009