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Margaret Sanger: Sex Among the “Defective and Diseased” is “Irresponsible Swarming and Spawning.”

Posted by Alana Varley on Dec 19, 2017 6:03:00 AM


This is the third post in a six-post discussion of Margaret Sanger. In each post, we will be examining common statements made in defense of her legacy and determine if these correspond with her writings. Read the previous post here


“Margaret Sanger had an imagination that women truly could be liberated from sexual oppression and enforced reproduction. She had a notion that in so doing women could achieve the power of their humanity,Faye Wattleton, former President of Planned Parenthood 

As a true eugenicist, Sanger believed that some lives were worth sacrificing. She believed that, if the physically deformed were allowed to reproduce, they would bring down the human race and prevent it from achieving its potential. “Every single case of inherited defect, every malformed child, every congenitally tainted human being brought into this world is of infinite importance to that poor individual,” she wrote, implying that she understood that birth defects made life difficult and that she had compassion on those who suffered from them. But with the rest of the sentence, she sacrificed compassion on the altar of the eugenic development of the human race: “but it is of scarcely less importance to the rest of us and to all of our children who must pay in one way or another for these biological and racial mistakes.”[1] To her, a child struggling with a birth defect was not a child in need of aid, but a threat to get rid of.

Margaret Sanger even placed a low dollar value on the value of a human life. She calculated that, in New York, about thirty-four million dollars were being channeled through the government and private charities to the poor and mentally challenged, about sixty-five thousand people.[2] She lamented that so much money went to so few individuals. “Our eyes should be opened to the terrific cost to the community of this dead weight of human waste,” she wrote.[3] The cost per person, however, was only five hundred twenty-three dollars. To Sanger, human life was not even worth that much.

Sanger also believed that some lives were not worth living. She wrote, “In truth, unfortunate babies who depart during their first twelve months are more fortunate in many respects than those who survive to undergo punishment for their parents’ cruel ignorance and complacent fecundity.”[4] To her, some individuals did not deserve to live. One Birth Control Review article, edited by Sanger, was titled “Unprofitable Children: Are These Bodies Fit Temples for Immortal Souls?”[5] She even believed that some seemingly worthless lives should be ended, and not merely prevented. In her article “Is Race Suicide Probable?” she quoted Luther Burbank: “All over the country today we have enormous insane asylums where we nourish the unfit and criminal instead of exterminating them.”[6] Instead of criticizing Burbank for his harsh views, she praised him. “American civilization is deeply indebted [to Burbank],” she wrote.[7]

She compared the physically unfit to low-life animals and suggested that they were somehow in a different classification than other human beings. In the middle of a discussion about hereditary and physical qualifications for parenthood, Sanger wrote of individuals “reproduc[ing] their kind.”[8] In a different section of The Pivot of Civilization, she again referred to the unfit “propagating their kind.”[9] By using the word “kind,” Sanger suggested that some people were somehow less human than other people. The use of the word implies Genesis 1:25: “God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds” (NIV). By using the word “kind,” Sanger implied that the poor and unintelligent belonged to a different classification or even a different species. To her, the unfit were somehow less human. Those born to delinquent parents had “no chance in the world to be a human being.” [10]

She compared the lives of some people to those of animals typically regarded as disgusting or unwanted. To her, different races were synonymous with different “strains,” just as one might discover new strains of bacteria.[11] To her, they were not fully human, but only “human material.”[12]

In one instance, she compared poor women to rats: “The women slink in and out of their homes like rats from holes,” she wrote.[13] She compared the sexual relations of poor people with the reproduction of snails, frogs, and other slimy creatures.[14] To her, sex among the “defective and diseased” was no more than “reckless and irresponsible swarming and spawning.”[15] If people were lowly animals, eugenics was “the rational breeding of human beings,” as Sanger quoted Galton.[16] In her writings, she continued to use the word “breeding” to refer to the reproduction of human beings which she felt were somehow less human or less than human.[17] Margaret Sanger did not view all human life as sacred, but instead viewed some lives as valuable and others as worthless as that of a squid or mollusk. 

Sanger’s The Pivot of Civilization is easily accessible on Project Gutenberg. Whether you agree with my analysis or not, I encourage you to check it out!

 [1]Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization, 260.

[2]Ibid., 215.

[3]Ibid., 215.

[4]Ibid., 195.

[5]Ibid., 169.

[6]Ibid., 176.

[7]Ibid., 176.

[8]Ibid., 204.

[9]Ibid., 234.

[10]Mike Wallace and Margaret Sanger, “The Mike Wallace Interview Guest: Margaret Sanger,” Harry Ransom Center. Accessed March 14, 2017 from http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/sanger_margaret_t.html.

[11]Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Truth Publishing Company, 1921), 34. Accessed January 26, 2017 from https://archive.org/details/womanandnewrace01sanggoog. 

[12]Sanger, Woman and the New Race, 37.

[13]Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization, 215.

[14]Ibid., 231.

[15]Ibid., 231.

[16]Ibid., 232.

[17]David Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 112. 

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