Growing up in the pro-life movement, I was taught that birth control originated as an attempt to eliminate “unfit races,” and that the chief instigator in this was Margaret Sanger. In my circles, Planned Parenthood carried a stigma because it was founded by that eugenicist, Margaret Sanger. Yesterday I wrote about Teddy Roosevelt and suggested that antifeminists may want to look elsewhere for an endorsement of childbearing, because Teddy’s endorsement was rooted in his racist and classist eugenicist beliefs. As a child, I was given to believe that Margaret Sanger’s endorsement of birth control, like Teddy’s endorsement of childbearing, was rooted in her belief in eugenics. But then, as an adult, I happened upon Sanger’s own explanation of why she became such a storng advocate for birth control. Hint: It wasn’t because of eugenics.
Instead of our charity organizations instituting baby nurseries—Better Baby leagues, Little Mother leagues—which at their best are simply alleviations for their present distress, would it not be better to help these women to help themselves by giving them the knowledge to control birth, thereby preventing their bringing into the world children to fill the orphan asylums and other institutions of charity?
I have never felt this more strongly than I did three years ago after the death of a patient on my last nursing case. This patient of mine was the wife of a struggling working man and the mother of three children. She was suffering from the results of an attempted abortion performed on her by herself. She lived on Grand St., the main thoroughfare of New York down-town Ghetto. I found her in a very serious condition and for three weeks both the attending physician and myself labored night and day to bring her out of the valley of the shadow of death. We finally succeeded in restoring her to her family circle. I remember well the day I was leaving. The doctor, too, was making his last call. As the doctor put out his hand to say good-bye to her, I saw that she had something to say to him, but was timid and shy about saying it. I started to leave the room to leave them both alone, but she said “No, don’t go. How can both of you leave me without telling me something that I can do to avoid a future illness such as I have just passed through?” I was interested to hear the answer of the physician, and came back and sat down beside her. To my amazement he answered her question lightly and jokingly, put her aside by telling her that there was nothing that she could do as long as there were laws upon the statute books, and he advised her to get her husband to change the laws.
Three months later I was aroused from my sleep at midnight. A telephone call from the husband of the same woman, requested me to come immediately, that she was dangerously ill. I arrived to find her beyond relief. Another conception had forced her into the hands of a cheap abortionist and she died at 4 o’clock the same morning, leaving behind her three little children and the frantic, helpless husband.I arrived home as the sun was coming up from the roofs of that human beehive and I realized how futile my efforts and my work had been. I, too, like the philanthropist, the social worker and the quack had been dealing with the symptoms rather than the disease. I threw my nursing bag into the corner and announced to my family that I would never take it up again, that I would never take another case until I had made it possible for the working women in America to have the knowledge to control birth. I decided I had no moral right to respect a law—a worn out piece of parchment—obsolete in every respect, I had no right to respect this above human life, and I decided to violate it wholesale.
Sanger was a nurse. She personally watched poor women go through unwanted pregnancy after unwanted pregnancy, unable to care for the children they already had and sometimes dying from self-induced abortions. These women were unable to access to birth control because even spreading information about birth control was against the law. Sanger went to jail for her work in spreading information about birth control to poor women who desperately wanted it. In other words, it was the empathy she felt while watching poor women struggle to raise families while facing unwanted and unintended pregnancies and more mouths than they could possibly feed that made Margaret Sanger beat the drum for birth control, not a desire to eliminate the unfit.
Further, Sanger knew that if poor women had fewer children they would be able to give each child more attention and resources and thus have a greater chance of moving their families out of the grinding poverty in which they were trapped. In other words, Sanger believed that birth control would give women in difficult circumstances a way to better their situations and enable them to prepare their children for better lives. Sanger wasn’t perfect, but her desire to make birth control available was based not in eugenics but in a desire to help the poor. Sanger’s birth control advocacy was about uplift, not elimination.
Am I saying we should quote Sanger uncritically? No. Nor should we quote Jane Addams uncritically, or any other progressive-era reformer. All were products of their time, and that context should not be ignored. But the idea that Sanger’s birth control advocacy sprang from her belief in eugenics is wrong. In actual fact, Sanger came to birth control advocacy after watching poor women struggle and die from lack of access to birth control. And I happen to think that distinction is important.