But — is that all? Baker and other Sanger defenders steadfastly deny the dark undertones that many see in her words and her personal associations. Sanger had many famed eugenicists among her close friends and colleagues, and she worked closely for years with the American Eugenics Society. Baker asserts that “anti-choice” revisionists are seeking to distort Sanger’s views and that, in Sanger’s time, most of the American public supported eugenics. Baker writes that eugenics “promoted enlightened parenthood and raising healthy children.” Baker implies that eugenicism was far more positive in Sanger’s day and that, despite the thousands of forced sterilizations (which Sanger openly approved of and Sanger defenders tend to downplay), it was meant to improve heredity and society. Baker also implies that while there may have been some bad eugenicists, Sanger was a good one, intent on improving the lives of others. An earlier biographer, Ellen Chesler, suggests that Sanger “invited the support of powerful eugenicists, whose underlying assumptions were a good deal more offensive than her own.”
But the eugenicist thorn that persistently sticks in everyone’s side is Margaret Sanger herself. Ever the radical feminist, she insisted on speaking for herself, and, to this day, her words stand on their own.
“Restriction should be an order as well as an ideal of the family and the race,” she wrote. Greatly influenced by her friend and mentor the neo-Malthusian thinker Havelock Ellis (co-founder of Great Britain’s Eugenic Education Society), Sanger strongly believed in a “qualitative” not “quantitative” factor for the human race. There was an ideal for humanity, and those who failed to meet Sanger’s standards in terms of physical condition and mental capacity, and those prone to alcoholism or epilepsy, were less “fit” human beings and less worthy of the freedoms that she apparently held so dear. They were the “weeds” of the human garden, and they must be plucked. In her 1922 work, Pivot of Civilization, Sanger remarked that the state should respond with either “force or persuasion” when “the incurably defective are permitted to procreate.”
Most tellingly, perhaps, in her 1920 book, Woman and the New Race, Sanger referred to birth control as “nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives, or those who would become defective.” Her great crusade for birth control was less about helping women and more about preventing the birth of those she deemed to be “unfit.”
Despite the insistence of her ardent supporters that Sanger was caught up in the common thought of her times, she was opposed by many contemporaries, who rejected such theories on the grounds both of faith and of American principles. She may have lived a life of passion, as Jean Baker asserts, but among her great passions was eugenics. It was one of the great legacies she sought to leave to the world.
In many ways, Sanger’s dream has been realized. For generations the sterilization of the poor and the vulnerable has been a reality pushed by government agencies and population-control groups. North Carolina is one of a number of states still debating reparations for victims of the state’s mandatory sterilization program from the mid-20th century. Currently, roughly 90 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. Obsessed with plucking the “weeds” from the human garden, Sanger and her fellow eugenicists lost sight of what it means to be human.
In the end, Sanger’s passion waged war on compassion, redefining pregnancy as a battle zone for the survival of the fittest. It is a bleak doctrine, made all the more terrible because of the millions in public funds still being deployed to advance her eugenic struggle.
— Chuck Donovan is president and Nora Sullivan is a research assistant at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.