So recently, the 2016 Democratic Candidate, Hillary Clinton celebrated (via twitter) the anniversary of the opening of the first Planned Parenthood clinic by Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) in America 99 years ago.
The trans-Atlantic birth control movement – often advocated in conjunction with the move for universal enfranchisement – gained a considerable following during the 1920s. Certainly in Britain, for many of its proponents, the foremost being Marie Stopes (1880-1958), who opened Britain’s first birth control clinic in 1921 in Walworth, it represented far more than simply the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. In addition, it allowed women the choice to emancipate themselves from their traditional “slavery to the reproductive function.”
However, birth control and Planned Parenthood also served a eugenic purpose: to prevent those with apparently lower intellect from having large families (if any families at all). With many adopting a position that was at best sceptical towards sterilization, birth control provided a less controversial means to lower the fecundity of the working class/poor black people and counter racial degeneration. In Britain, no one encapsulated this hybrid of female emancipation and eugenics more than Stopes herself, who argued in 1920 that “once the women of all classes [had] the fear and dread of undesired maternity removed from them, they [would] be free to put all their delicate strength into creating desired and beautiful children. And it is on the feet of those children that the race will go forward into the promised land of Utopia.”
Sanger also saw the connection between birth control and female emancipation: “[A] woman can never call herself free until she is mistress of her own body. Just so long as man dictates and controls the standards of sex morality, just so long will man control the world. Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.”
Sanger was also a eugenicist. In Britain and America, eugenicists tended to view the world in terms of superior and inferior racial groups (to varying degrees): something commonly referred to as scientific racism. From this viewpoint, sweeping generalisations could be made, especially referring to someone’s intellect and personality, judging simply from the colour of their skin. Furthermore, ‘racial intermixture’ was seen as disastrous from an evolutionary perspective.
In her recent article for Breitbart, Susan Berry correctly drew attention to the connection between Planned Parenthood and the American eugenics movement, which from the 1900s to 1970s – whether through sterilization, abortion or contraception – prevented thousands of children being born. It was thought this would prevent the degeneration of the American race (effectively referring to white people only).
Sanger is remembered for making birth control available to poor women. One must, along with head of Ministers Taking a Stand, Bishop E.W. Jackson, also consider that equally: “Her motivation was stopping people whom she considered ‘defective’ from having what she would call ‘defective children.’ She thought that black people needed to be stopped from propagating and growing their population, and other people she called ‘feeble-minded’.” Indeed, as a result of projects such as Planned Parenthood, the Guttmacher Institute reported that in America black women are five times more likely to undergo an abortion than white women.
While eugenics is no longer really a thing, at least not in terms of scientific racism and the like, in America it’s various measures certainly targeted black people more frequently than white, via Planned Parenthood and varying state laws on sterilization. Sanger should not be discussed without the use of a disclaimer (Sanger was also a utopian eugenicist who believed black people were inferior and should have fewer children). However, referring to Planned Parenthood as ‘evil’ (or something similar) because of the opinions of its founders is not useful. The term ‘evil’ itself is ludicrously subjective. If America must continue to accept its eugenic past, we must also accept that for all its misgivings, ironically, eugenics also played a role in giving women increased control over their own fertility. Were Hillary Clinton to adopt this position, however, the popular vote would surely be lost.
Susan Berry, ‘Hillary Clinton Celebrates Planned Parenthood’s Years of Pursuing Eugenics’ Breitbart (16 October 2015), [http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/10/16/hillary-clinton-celebrates-planned-parenthoods-years-pursuing-eugenics/].
Marie C. Stopes, ‘Imperial and Racial Aspects,’ in: Marchant ed., The Control of Parenthood, 202.