News Contraception

Who Was Margaret Sanger?

Robin Marty

As every anti-choice advocate and candidate invokes the name of the founder of Planned Parenthood, Ms. Magazine takes a deeper look into her life and work.

Margaret Sanger.  Eugenics.  It seems like you can’t hear the first phrase without an anti-choice person following up with the E word.  Today, Ms. Magazine releases a profile on Sanger, looking at both her role in the family planning movement and her controversial past.

The challenge as Sanger’s biographer has been to reconcile apparent contradictions in her beliefs. She actually held unusually advanced views on race relations for her day and on many occasions condemned discrimination and encouraged reconciliation between blacks and whites. Though most birth control facilities conformed to the segregation mores of the day, she opened an integrated clinic in Harlem in the early 1930s. Later, she facilitated birth control and maternal health programs for rural black women in the south, when local white health officials there denied them access to any New Deal-funded services.

Sanger worked on this last project with the behind-the-scenes support of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women and then a Roosevelt administration official. Their progressive views on race were well known, if controversial, but their support for birth control was silenced by Franklin’s political handlers—at least until he was safely ensconced in the White House for a third term, when the government rushed to provide condoms to World War II soldiers.

Sanger’s so-called Negro Project has been a source of controversy first raised by black nationalists and some feminist scholars in the 1970s and later by anti-abortion foes. Respecting the importance of self-determination among users of contraception, she recruited prominent black leaders to endorse the goal, especially ministers who held sway over the faithful. In that context, she wrote an unfortunate sentence in a private letter about needing to clarify the ideals and goals of the birth control movement because “we do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”  The sentence may have been thoughtlessly composed, but it is perfectly clear that she was not endorsing genocide.

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