Infanticide did not go out of fashion with the advance from savagery to barbarism and civilization. Rather, it became, as in Greece and Rome, a recognized custom with advocates among leaders of thought and action.
– Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race
Clarence C. Little was a cultivated man. He was a Harvard graduate who served as president of the University of Maine and the University of Michigan. He was one of the nation’s leading genetics researchers, with a particular interest in cancer. He was managing director of the American Society for the Control of Cancer, later known (in the interest of verbal economy) as the American Cancer Society; the president of the American Eugenics Society, later known (in the interest of not talking about eugenics) as the Society for Biodemography and Social Biology; and a founding board member of the American Birth Control League, today known (in the interest of euphemism) as Planned Parenthood. His record as a scientist is not exactly unblemished — he will long be remembered as the man who insisted that “there is no demonstrated causal relationship between smoking or [sic] any disease” — but he was the very picture of the socially conscious man of science, without whom the National Cancer Institute, among other important bodies, probably would not exist.
He was a humane man with horrifying opinions.
Little is one of the early figures in Planned Parenthood whose public pronouncements, along with those of its charismatic foundress, Margaret Sanger, often are pointed to as evidence of the organization’s racist origins. (Students at the University of Michigan are, at the time of this writing, petitioning to have his name stripped from a campus building.) Little believed that birth-control policy should be constructed in such a way as to protect “Yankee stock” — referred to in Sanger’s own work as “unmixed native white parentage,” if Little’s term is not clear enough — from being overwhelmed by what was at the time perceived as the dysgenic fecundity of African Americans, Catholic immigrants, and other undesirables. (“The feebleminded are notoriously prolific in reproduction,” Sanger reported in Woman and the New Race.) The question of racial differences was an obsession of Little’s that went well beyond his interest in eugenics and followed him to the end of his life; one of his later scientific works was “The Possible Relation of Genetics to Differences in Negro–White Mortality Rates from Cancer,” published in the 1960s.
The birth-control movement of the Progressive era is where crude racism met its genteel intellectual cousin: Birth Control Review, the in-house journal of Planned Parenthood’s predecessor organization, published a review, by the socialist intellectual Havelock Ellis, of Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy. Ellis was an important figure in Sanger’s intellectual development and wrote the introduction to her Woman and the New Race; Stoddard was a popular birth-control advocate whose intellectual contributions included lending to the Nazi racial theorists the term “untermensch” as well as developing a great deal of their theoretical framework: He fretted about “imperfectly Nordicized Alpines” and such. Like the other eugenics-minded progressives of his time, he saw birth control and immigration as inescapably linked issues.
Stoddard’s views were so ordinary a part of the mainstream of American intellectual discourse at the time that F. Scott Fitzgerald could refer to his work in The Great Gatsby without fearing that general readers would be mystified by the reference. What did Stoddard want? “We want above all things,” he wrote,
to preserve America. But “America,” as we have already seen, is not a mere geographical expression; it is a nation, whose foundations were laid over three hundred years ago by Anglo-Saxon Nordics, and whose nationhood is due almost exclusively to people of North European stock — not only the old colonists and their descendants but also many millions of North Europeans who have entered the country since colonial times and who have for the most part been thoroughly assimilated. Despite the recent influx of alien elements, therefore, the American people is still predominantly a blend of closely related North European strains, and the fabric of American life is fundamentally their creation.
Yesterday’s scientific progressives are today’s romantic reactionaries.
Sanger, who believed that the potential for high civilization resided within “the cell plasms” of individual humans, made statements that were substantially similar: “If we are to develop in America a new race with a racial soul, we must keep the birth rate within the scope of our ability to understand as well as to educate. We must not encourage reproduction beyond our capacity to assimilate our numbers so as to make the coming generation into such physically fit, mentally capable, socially alert individuals as are the ideal of a democracy.”
Such was the intellectual ferment out of which rose the American birth-control movement — or, rather, the American birth-control movements, of which there were really two. Sanger, working within the socialist–feminist alliance of her time, was a self-styled radical who published a short-lived journal called “The Woman Rebel,” the aim of which as described in its inaugural issue was “to stimulate working women to think for themselves and to build up a conscious fighting character.” To fight what? “Slavery through motherhood.” The Post Office refused to circulate the periodical, a fact that The Woman Rebel reported with glee: “The woman rebel feels proud the post office authorities did not approve of her. She shall blush with shame if ever she be approved of by officialism or ‘comstockism.’” But Sanger and her clique did not have a monopoly on the birth-control market. Her rival was Mary Ware Dennett, founder of — see if this name sounds familiar — the Voluntary Parenthood League (VPL).
Where Sanger was a radical, Dennett was a liberal, couching her advocacy in the familiar language of the American civil-libertarian tradition. She was an ally of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had defended her when she was charged with distributing birth-control literature classified (as most of it was at the time) as “obscene.” While Sanger’s organization was focused on setting up birth-control clinics (the first was in Brooklyn), Dennett’s group was focused on lobbying Congress for the legalization of contraception. Sanger’s group was characterized by a top-down management structure (the local affiliates had no say in American Birth Control League policymaking) and a cash-on-the-barrelhead approach to social reform: Its membership and coffers were swelled in no small part by the fact that the ABCL would not provide birth-control literature to anyone who was not a dues-paying member.
As Linda Gordon put it in The Moral Property of Woman: A History of Birth-Control Politics:
Increasingly the ABCL organized its local affiliates as upper-class women’s clubs, even high-society charity groups. In 1926, league organizing in Philadelphia was focused mainly on women of the Main Line, a group of extremely wealthy suburbs. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mrs. C. C. Edmonds, of 1414 Wealthy St., S.E., was collecting “influential people” for a local group. New York meetings were held in the Bryn Mawr Club. These details pile up, drawing an unmistakable picture of an organization of privileged women.
In the contest between the ABCL and VPL, we see the familiar struggle that has long characterized the broader American Left: On one hand, there are liberals advocating a legislative reform project through ordinary democratic means; on the other hand are progressives, often led by radicals, who are engaged in a social-change project based on coopting institutions and the expertise and prestige associated with them. Gordon concludes: “It was Sanger’s courting of doctors and eugenists that moved the ABCL away from both the Left and liberalism, away from both socialist-feminist impulses and civil liberties arguments toward an integrated population ‘program for the whole society.’”
Which is to say, the word “planned” in “Planned Parenthood” can be understood to function as it does in the other great progressive dream of the time: “planned economy.”
Who plans for whom?
Sanger herself was generally careful to forswear compulsion in her eugenics program, but in reality the period was characterized by the widespread use of involuntary sterilization. Mandatory-sterilization bills were introduced unsuccessfully in Michigan and Pennsylvania at the end of the 19th century, but in 1907 Indiana became the first of many states to create eugenics-oriented sterilization programs, targeting such “unfit” populations as criminals and the mentally ill, along with African Americans (60 percent of the black mothers at one Mississippi hospital were involuntarily sterilized) and other minority groups. The Oregon state eugenics board was renamed but was not disbanded until the 1980s. About 65,000 people in the United States were involuntarily sterilized.
European programs went even further, with the Swiss experiment in involuntary sterilization drawing the attention of Havelock Ellis, who wrote up his views in “The Sterilization of the Unfit.” Ellis, too, objected to compulsory measures — up to a point. “There will be time to invoke compulsion and the law,” he wrote, “when sound knowledge has become universal, and when we are quite sure that those who refuse to act in accordance with sound knowledge refuse deliberately.” He did not have access to the modern progressive term “denialist,” but the argument is familiar: Once the science is settled, then the state is empowered to act on it through whatever coercive means are necessary to achieve the end. Two recent press releases from the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, both from May, are headlined: “State Abortion Restrictions Flying in the Face of Science” and “Many Abortion Restrictions Have No Rigorous Scientific Basis.”
Progressives holding views closer to those of the proto-Nazi Lothrop Stoddard frequently talked about eugenics in zoological terms, but, in the main, eugenics was subordinated to the larger progressive economic agenda: the management of productive activity by enlightened experts. The great economic terrors among progressives of the time were “overproduction” and “destructive competition,” both of which were thought to put downward pressure on wages, profits, and, subsequently, standards of living. Contraception was widely understood as a political solution to a supply-and-demand problem, with birth control understood as one element in a broad and unified program of economic control. Ellis sums up this view in his foreword to Sanger’s Woman and the New Race:
The modern Woman Movement, like the modern Labour Movement, may be said to have begun in the Eighteenth century. The Labour movement arose out of the Industrial Revolution with its resultant tendency to over-population, to unrestricted competition, to social misery and disorder. The Woman Movement appeared as an at first neglected by-product of the French Revolution with its impulses of general human expansion, of freedom and of equality. . . . Woman, by virtue of motherhood, is the regulator of the birthrate, the sacred disposer of human production. It is in the deliberate restraint and measurement of human production that the fundamental problems of the family, the nation, the whole brotherhood of mankind find their solution. The health and longevity of the individual, the economic welfare of the workers, the general level of culture of the community, the possibility of abolishing from the world the desolating scourge of war — all these like great human needs, depend, primarily and fundamentally, on the wise limitation of the human output.
Or, as Sanger insisted: “War, famine, poverty and oppression of the workers will continue while woman makes life cheap.”
There is more to this history than exegesis of Progressive-era thinking. It is significant that Sanger’s birth-control movement, and not Dennett’s, came to dominate the field. The financially driven structure of local affiliates working in complete subordination to a tightly controlled national body of course survives in the modern iteration of Planned Parenthood, but, more important, so does the humans-as-widgets conception of sexuality and family life. The eugenic habit of mind very much endures, though it is less frequently spoken of plainly.
In his Buck v. Bell decision — confirming that involuntary-sterilization programs pass constitutional muster “for the protection and health of the state” — the great humanist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Never having been overturned, Buck remains, in theory, the law of the land. But that was long ago. And yet: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a reliable supporter of abortion rights, has described Roe v. Wade as being a decision about population control, “particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” Like Ellis and Sanger, Ginsburg worries that, without government intervention, birth control will be disproportionately practiced by the well-off and not by the members of those “populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” In an interview with Elle, Ginsburg said, “It makes no sense as a national policy to promote birth only among poor people.” That wasn’t 1927 — it was 2014. A co-counsel for the winning side of Roe v. Wade, Ron Weddington, advised President Bill Clinton that an expanded national birth-control policy incorporating ready access to pharmaceutical abortifacients promised immediate benefits: “You can start immediately to eliminate the barely educated, unhealthy, and poor segment of our country. It’s what we all know is true, but we only whisper it.”
But it is not true that we only whisper it. In Freakonomics, one of the most popular economics books of recent years, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner argued that abortion has measureable eugenic effects through reduction in crime rates. Of course that debate has an inescapable racial aspect: “Fertility declines for black women are three times greater than for whites (12 percent compared with 4 percent). Given that homicide rates of black youths are roughly nine times higher than those of white youths, racial differences in the fertility effects of abortion are likely to translate into greater homicide reductions,” Levitt and a different co-author had written in a paper that the book drew from. Whatever the merits of this argument, it is very much in line with the classical progressive case for birth control, which was developed as a national breed-improvement project rather than one of individual women’s choices. Linda Gordon notes: “A content analysis of the Birth Control Review showed that by the late 1920s only 4.9 percent of its articles in that decade had any concern with women’s self-determination.”
The American Birth Control League was founded by Margaret Sanger in 1921, working out of office space provided by the American Eugenics Society. Sanger would depart seven years later as part of a factional dispute, with various elements of her organization eventually reunited in 1939 as the Birth Control Federation of America. But the words “birth control” at that time were considered public-relations poison, and so in 1942 the organization was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Sanger herself often wrote critically about abortion, which, especially early in her career, she classified alongside infanticide, offering contraception as the obvious rational alternative to such savagery. Her arguments will sound at least partly familiar to modern ears: “Do we want the millions of abortions performed annually to be multiplied? Do we want the precious, tender qualities of womanhood, so much needed for our racial development, to perish in these sordid, abnormal experiences?” But that line of thinking was not destined to endure, and by the 1950s Planned Parenthood was working for the liberalization of abortion laws. Sanger’s successor, obstetrician Alan Frank Guttmacher, also served as vice president of the American Eugenics Society and was a signer of the second “Humanist Manifesto,” which called for the worldwide recognition of the right to birth control and abortion and, harkening back to the 1920s progressives, the extension of “economic assistance, including birth control techniques, to the developing portions of the globe.” The repeated identification of birth control with national economic planning rather than women’s individual autonomy is worth noting.
Continuing Sanger’s strategy of courting elite opinion as a more effective form of lobbying, Planned Parenthood’s medical director, Mary Calderone, convened a conference of her fellow physicians in 1955 to begin pressing for the legalization of abortion for medical purposes. By 1969, the demand for therapeutic abortions had grown to a demand for the legalization of abortion in all circumstances, which remains Planned Parenthood’s position today and, thanks in no small part to its very effective litigation efforts, is the law of the land.
As in Sanger’s time, Planned Parenthood keeps an eye on the money and has a corporate gift for insinuation: It lobbied the Nixon administration successfully for an amendment to public-health laws, as a result of which the organization today pulls in more than half a billion dollars in federal-government funds alone, largely through Medicaid. In 1989, it founded an advocacy arm, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, that today encompasses a political-action committee and super PAC that ranks No. 23 out of 206 outside-spending groups followed by OpenSecrets.org, putting a little over $12 million into almost exclusively Democratic pockets during the 2016 election cycle.
Is it working? Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy, might be gratified to note that, in Planned Parenthood’s hometown of New York City, a black woman is more likely to have an abortion than to give birth: 29,007 abortions to 24,108 births in 2013. African Americans represent about 12 percent of the population and about 36 percent of the abortions; Catholics, disproportionately Hispanic and immigrant, represent 24 percent. In total, one in five U.S. pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) ends in abortion, and most women who have abortions already have at least one child. The overwhelming majority of them (75 percent, as Guttmacher reckons it) are poor. The public record includes no data about the “feebleminded” or otherwise “unfit,” but the racial and income figures suggest that Planned Parenthood is today very much functioning as its Progressive-era founders intended.
If Planned Parenthood’s operating model remains familiar after 100 years, so does the rhetoric of the abortion movement. Sanger herself relayed the experience of the Scottish ethnologist John Ferguson McLennan: “When a traveller reproached the women of one of the South American Indian tribes for the practice of infanticide, McLennan says he was met by the retort, ‘Men have no business to meddle with women’s affairs.’”