Is Abortion an African-American Genocide? The Problem with Conservatives Citing Margaret Sanger

Is Abortion an African-American Genocide? The Problem with Conservatives Citing Margaret Sanger July 15, 2015

Conservatives want to have it both ways. They argue that progressive support of welfare and affirmative action is racist in that it assumes that blacks need these things to succeed. Welfare and affirmative action take away from black agency and get in the way of black progress, they say, and are based in the racist assumption that African Americans are by nature dependent. Conservatives are, they say, all about restoring black agency and removing the chains of dependency—except, of course, when it comes to abortion. When it comes to abortion, African Americans’ agency and ability to make their own choices goes out the window as conservatives paint women of color as dupes participating in their own genocide.

As an example, in 2013 Doug Wilson wrote the following:

The death toll from abortion is approaching 100 times the death toll of the Civil War. And in this, future black generations have been heavily and disproportionately targeted. Does anybody deny that? If you allow Margaret Sanger to speak for herself, this targeting of blacks was a design feature. We know what that white woman thought of her “human weeds.” Where are the black prophets?

I have seen this same argument again, and again, and again. Abortion opponents argue that Margaret Sanger (who died in 1966, by the way) was intent on carrying out a genocide against African Americans and that modern day Planned Parenthood clinics are continuing that effort, as evidenced by the fact that disproportionately high numbers of black women obtain abortions.

But you know what? No one forces women of color to have abortions. In fact, Planned Parenthood personnel are required to make sure that women who come to their facility for abortions are doing so through their own free will. When conservatives argue abortion is a plan dreamed up by Margaret Sanger to carry out genocide against African Americans, and that that is why higher rates of African American women have abortions, they are suggesting that black women should not have the ability to freely make their own reproductive choices.

Who is trying to invalidate African Americans’ agency now?

Let’s imagine for a moment that Margaret Sanger is everything conservatives claim she is. Let’s imagine that she pioneered abortion in an effort to decrease the nation’s African American population with a view toward eventual elimination. Even if that were true, it would have no relevance to the form abortion takes today. No one forces African American women to have abortions. There is no coercion. Indeed, African American women have on average more children than white women, which suggests that Sanger’s (imagined) plan is working out very badly.

To the extent that there is any coercion—i.e. to the extent that women feel that they have no other option than abortion—it is conservative policies that are to blame. Conservatives favor cutting welfare and oppose government subsidies for childcare. Conservatives oppose better maternity leave policies and oppose raising the minimum wage. Conservatives are against providing effective birth control free of charge and against comprehensive sex education. The net result of these policies is that poor women, and especially women of color, will find themselves both unintentionally pregnant and unable to financially afford raising another child. To the extent that coercion exists vis a vis abortion today, this is what it looks like.

But what of Margaret Sanger? If you ask conservatives to demonstrate that Margaret Sanger is racist, they will give you this quote:

We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.

Yes, Sanger wrote that. Here is the full context:

It seems to me from my experience . . . in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors, they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table. . . . They do not do this with the white people, and if we can train the Negro doctor at the clinic, he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching results. . . . His work, in my opinion, should be entirely with the Negro profession and the nurses, hospital, social workers, as well as the County’s white doctors. His success will depend upon his personality and his training by us.

The minister’s work is also important, and also he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation, as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs.

In other words, the whole point was that Sanger didn’t want to “exterminate the Negro population.” Sanger was simply worried that some African Americans might think that was what she was trying to do, and she wanted to reach out to African American ministers and community members to ensure them that that was not the case, in order to ward off any rumors.

It’s true that Sanger was a supporter of eugenics. This was reprehensible, and Planned Parenthood has repudiated these views without qualification. However, conservatives err when they use Sanger’s support of eugenics to argue that she wanted to eliminate nonwhite races. Eugenics, as practiced in the U.S., was primarily about improving the human race by removing “feeble mindedness” and criminality from the gene pool through forced sterilization (for a look at what this entailed, see the 1934 movie Tomorrow’s Children, especially starting at 25:15). While eugenics had racial undertones for many, Sanger rejected efforts to apply eugenics to race. Sanger also disagreed with many eugenicists in arguing that women should be allowed to make their own reproductive choices, and in being opposed to forcible sterilization.

But honestly, Margaret Sanger is a bad target for conservatives in their battle against abortion in general. In 1922, she wrote the following:

It is apparent that nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to the horrors of abortion and infanticide. 

Sanger was all about birth control, not abortion. Sanger lived at a time when abortion was both illegal and dangerous. Indeed, she became a birth control pioneer after watching women in her care die of self-inflicted abortions—women who had multiple children already, and could not afford to feed another mouth. Her goal was to place reproductive freedom in women’s hands so that they could make their own choices and avoid the need for desperate self-inflicted abortions.

In 1919, Sanger wrote the following:

Eugenists imply or insist that a woman’s first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her first duty to the state. We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother. … Only upon a free, self- determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment.

And in 1942, Sanger wrote that:

I think it is magnificent that we are in on the ground floor, helping Negroes to control their birth rate, to reduce their high infant and maternal death rate, to maintain better standards of health and living for those already born, and to create better opportunities for those who will be born.

Sanger won the support of such civil rights luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr.

You can read this Fact Sheet if you’re interested in learning more.

But with this all said, let me bring this back to where we started. Even if Margaret Sanger were interested in eliminating the African American population, that would be irrelevant to abortion access in the present. When they have abortions, women of color do so of their own volition. No one is forcing them. Presenting them as victims at the hands of white designs to eliminate their race robs them of agency and makes them complicit in their own genocide. If this isn’t offensive—and racist—I don’t know what is.

Here’s an idea. Instead of arguing that African American women who have abortions are complicit in the elimination of their own race, how about improving their options through better social welfare programs, paid maternity leave and subsidized childcare, more education funding for low income schools and more support for African American teens to attend college? But then, I suppose decrying an African American genocide vis a vis abortion is easier than actually getting your hands dirty.

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