At a March 1925 international birth control gathering in New York City, a speaker warned of the menace posed by the "black" and "yellow" peril. The man was not a Nazi or Klansman; he was Dr. S. Adolphus Knopf, a member of Margaret Sanger's American Birth Control League (ABCL), which along with other groups eventually became known as Planned Parenthood.
Sanger's other colleagues included avowed and sophisticated racists. One, Lothrop Stoddard, was a Harvard graduate and the author of The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy. Stoddard was something of a Nazi enthusiast who described the eugenic practices of the Third Reich as "scientific" and "humanitarian." And Dr. Harry Laughlin, another Sanger associate and board member for her group, spoke of purifying America's human "breeding stock" and purging America's "bad strains." These "strains" included the "shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of antisocial whites of the South."
Not to be outdone by her followers, Margaret Sanger spoke of sterilizing those she designated as "unfit," a plan she said would be the "salvation of American civilization.: And she also spike of those who were "irresponsible and reckless," among whom she included those " whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers." She further contended that "there is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped." That many Americans of African origin constituted a segment of Sanger considered "unfit" cannot be easily refuted.
While Planned Parenthood's current apologists try to place some distance between the eugenics and birth control movements, history definitively says otherwise. The eugenic theme figured prominently in the Birth Control Review, which Sanger founded in 1917. She published such articles as "Some Moral Aspects of Eugenics" (June 1920), "The Eugenic Conscience" (February 1921), "The purpose of Eugenics" (December 1924), "Birth Control and Positive Eugenics" (July 1925), "Birth Control: The True Eugenics" (August 1928), and many others.
These eugenic and racial origins are hardly what most people associate with the modern Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), which gave its Margaret Sanger award to the late Dr. Martin Luther King in 1966, and whose current president, Faye Wattleton, is black, a former nurse, and attractive.
Though once a social pariah group, routinely castigated by religious and government leaders, the PPFA is now an established, high-profile, well-funded organization with ample organizational and ideological support in high places of American society and government. Its statistics are accepted by major media and public health officials as "gospel"; its full-page ads appear in major newspapers; its spokespeople are called upon to give authoritative analyses of what America's family policies should be and to prescribe official answers that congressmen, state legislator and Supreme Court justiices all accept as "social orthodoxy."
Sanger's obsession with eugenics can be traced back to her own family. One of 11 children, she wrote in the autobiographical book, My Fight for Birth Control, that "I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, jails with large families." Just as important was the impression in her childhood of an inferior family status, exacerbated by the iconoclastic, "free-thinking" views of her father, whose "anti-Catholic attitudes did not make for his popularity" in a predominantly Irish community. The fact that the wealthy families in her hometown of Corning, N.Y., had relatively few children, Sanger took as prima facie evidence of the impoverishing effect of larger families. The personal impact of this belief was heightened 1899, at the age of 48. Sanger was convinced that the "ordeals of motherhood" had caused the death of her mother. The lingering consumption (tuberculosis) that took her mother's life visited Sanger at the birth of her own first child on Nov. 18, 1905. The diagnosis forced her to seek refuge in the Adirondacks to strengthen her for the impending birth. Despite the precautions, the birth of baby Grant was "agonizing," the mere memory of which Sanger described as "mental torture" more than 25 years later. She once described the experience as a factor "to be reckoned with" in her zealous campaign for birth control.
From the beginning, Sanger advocacy of sex education reflected her interest in population control and birth prevention among the "unfit." Her first handbook, published for adolescents in 1915 and entitled, What Every Boy and Girl Should Know, featured a jarring afterword:
It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stoop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them.
To Sanger, the ebbing away of moral and religious codes over sexual conduct was a natural consequence of the worthlessness of such codes in the individual's search for self-fulfillment. "Instead of laying down hard and fast rules of sexual conduct," Sanger wrote in her 1922 book Pivot of Civilization, "sex can be rendered effective and valuable only as it meets and satisfies the interests and demands of the pupil himself." Her attitude is appropriately described as libertinism, but sex knowledge was not the same as individual liberty, as her writings on procreation emphasized.
The second edition of Sanger's life story, An Autobiography, appeared in 1938. There Sanger described her first cross-country lecture tour in 1916. Her standard speech asserted seven conditions of life that "mandated" the use of birth control: the third was "when parents, though normal, had subnormal children"; the fourth, "when husband and wife were adolescent"; the fifth, "when the earning capacity of the father was inadequate." No right existed to exercise sex knowledge to advance procreation. Sanger described the fact that "anyone, no matter how ignorant, how diseased mentally or physically, how lacking in all knowledge of children, seemed to consider he or she had the right to become a parent."
In the 1910's and 1920's, the entire social order–religion, law, politics, medicine, and the media–was arrayed against the idea and practice of birth control. This opposition began in 1873 when an overwhelmingly Protestant Congress passed, and a Protestant president signed into law, a bill that became known as the Comstock Law, named after its main proponent, Anthony Comstock. The U.S. Congress classified obscene writing, along with drugs, and devices and articles that prevented conception or caused abortion, under the same net of criminality and forbade their importation or mailing.
Sanger set out to have such legislation abolished or amended. Her initial efforts were directed at the Congress with the opening of a Washington, D.C., office of her American Birth Control League in 1926. Sanger wanted to amend section 211 of the U.S. criminal code to allow the interstate shipment and mailing of contraceptives among physicians, druggists and drug manufacturers.
During January and February of 1926, Sanger and her co-workers personally interviewed 40 senators and 14 representatives. None agreed to introduce a bill to amend the Comstock Act. Fresh from this unanimous rejection, Sanger issued an update to her followers: Everywhere there is general acceptance of the idea, except in religious circles. . .The National Catholic Welfare Council [sic] (NCWC) has a special legislative committee organized to block and defeat our legislation. They frankly state that they intend to legislate for non-Catholics according to the dictates of the church.
There was no such committee. But 20 non-Catholic lay or religious organizations joined NCWC in opposition to amending the Comstock Act. This was not the first time, nor was it to be the last, that Sanger sought to stir up sectarian strife by blaming Catholics for her legislative failures. Catholic-bashing was a standard tactic (one that Planned Parenthood still finds useful to this day), although other Christian groups now also come in for criticism.
Eight years later, in 1934, Sanger went to Congress again. Reporting on the first day of the hearings, the New York Times noted: ... the almost solidly Catholic opposition to the measure. This is now, according to Margaret Sanger. . . the only organized opposition to the proposal.
Sanger wrote a letter to her "Friends, Co-workers, and Endorsers" that portrayed the opposing testimony as the work of Catholics determined ... not to present facts to the committee but to intimidate them by showing a Catholic block of voters who (though in the minority in the United States) want to dictate to the majority of non-Catholics as directed from the Vatican in social and moral legislation ... American men and women, are we going to allow this insulting arrogance to bluff the American people?
For Sanger, the proper attitude toward her religious critics featured character assassination, personal vilification and old-fashioned bigotry. Her Birth Control Review printed an article that noted: "Today by the Roman Catholic clergy and their allies . . . Public opinion in America, I fear, is too willing to condone in the officials of the Roman Catholic Church what it condemns in the Ku Klux Klan.
A favorite Catholic-baiter of Sanger's was Norman E. Himes, who contributed articles to Sanger's journal. Himes claimed there were genetic differences between Catholics and non-Catholics.
Are Catholic stocks . . . genetically inferior to such non-Catholic libertarian stocks and Unitarians and Universal . . . Freethinkers? Inferior to non-Catholics in general? . . . my guess is that the answer will someday be made in the affirmative. . . and if the supposed differentials in net productivity are also genuine, the situation is anti-social, perhaps gravely so.
Sanger sought to isolate Catholics by creating a schism between them and Protestants, who had held parallel views of birth control and abortion for centuries. She welcomed a report from a majority of the Committee on Marriage and the Home of the General Council of Churches (later the National Council of Churches) advocating birth control. This committee was composed largely of social elite Protestants, including Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. A number of Protestant church bodies publicly repudiated the committee's endorsement.
The Rev. Worth Tippy, council executive secretary and author of the report, told Sanger in April 1931 that: ... the statement on Moral Aspects of Birth Control has aroused more opposition within the Protestant churches than we expected. Under the circumstances, and since we plan to carry on a steady work for liberalizing laws and to stimulate the establishment of clinics, it is necessary that we make good these losses and also increase our resources.Could you help me quietly by giving me the names of people of means who are interested in the birth control movement and might help us if I wrote them.
Sanger immediately wrote Tippy that she would be "glad to select names of persons from our lists whom I think might be able to subscribe." Tippy replied to Sanger a week later, offering to give her some names for fund raising and thanking her for the offer of "names of people who are able to contribute to generous causes and who are favorable to birth control." He also related that they had expected some reaction from the "fundamentalist groups," but nothing like what had happened.
Protestants repeatedly stated their unity with Catholics in opposing Planned Parenthood's initiatives. During Sanger's attempts to reform New York state law, another Protestant stood with Catholics. The Rev. John R. Straton, Pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church of New York City, said: "This bill is subversive of the human family . . . It is revolting, monstrous, against God's word and contradicts American traditions."
Sanger's attack on Catholics appeared to be an attempt to divert attention from the class politics of Planned Parenthood. The Rev. John A. Ryan wrote: ... their main objective is to increase the practice of birth-prevention among the poor . . . It is said that the present birth-prevention movement is to some extent financed by wealthy, albeit philanthropic persons. As far as I am aware , none of these is conspicuous in the movement for economic justice. None of them is crying out for a scale of wages which would enable workers to take care of a normal number of children.
Sanger's sexual license was another motivation for her Anti-Catholic sniping. A Sanger biographer, David M. Kennedy, said her primary goal was to "increase the quantity and quality of sexual relationships." The birth control movement, she said, freed the mind from "sexual prejudice and taboo, by demanding the frankest and most unflinching re-examination of sex in its relation to human nature and the basis of human society.
It was in 1939 that Sanger's larger vision for dealing with the reproductive practices of black Americans emerged. After the January 1939 merger of her Clinical Research Bureau and the ABCL to form the Birth Control Federation of America, Dr. Clarence J. Gamble was selected to become the BCFA regional director for the South. Dr. Gamble, of the soap-manufacturing Procter and Gamble company, was no newcomer to Sanger's organization. He had previously served as director at large to the predecessor ABCL.
Gamble lost no time and drew up a memorandum in November 1939 entitled "Suggestion for Negro Project." Acknowledging that black leaders might regard birth control as an extermination plot, he suggested that black leaders be place in positions where it would appear that they were in chargeÑas it was at an Atlanta conference.
It is evident from the rest of the memo that Gamble conceived the project almost as a traveling road show. A charismatic black minister was to start a revival, with "contributions" to come from other local cooperating ministers. A "colored nurse" would follow, supported by a subsidized "colored doctor." Gamble even suggested that music might be a useful lure to bring the prospects to a meeting.
Sanger answered Gamble on Dec. 10. 1939, agreeing with the assessment. She wrote: "We do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten that idea out if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members." In 1940, money for two "Negro Project" demonstration programs in southern states was donated by advertising magnate Albert D. Lasker and his wife, Mary.