This is the fifth 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 last week's post here.
“The whole underpinning of what my grandmother stood for was that everyone should have access to family planning, the right to decide whether and when to have a child.” Alex Sanger, Grandson of Margaret Sanger
Sanger’s promotion of eugenics did not end with birth control; she believed that the government should promote eugenics through various programs and even through sterilization. “The United States government has recently inaugurated a policy of restricting immigration from foreign countries...it should likewise recognize the wisdom of voluntary restriction in the production of children,” she wrote. In her writings, Sanger suggested several government programs which would contribute to the eugenics movement. In one narrative, Sanger suggested that the government institute a program in which individuals would be forced to “apply” for children before being allowed to procreate.
Sanger’s writings encouraged those government programs which would promote eugenics. Child labor laws were one example. She observed that, when child labor laws were put into place, women in lower classes had less children, because children were no longer cheap. When their children could no longer make money, they became burdensome. Prohibiting child labor, then, would incentivize the poor to have less children, and the upper class might even edge ahead in the cradle competition. “The enforcement of the child labor laws,” Sanger wrote, “...are therefore an urgent necessity...to prevent the recruiting of our next generation from the least intelligent and most unskilled classes in the community.”
Sanger discouraged those government programs which she felt would hurt the eugenics movement. She wrote of the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, which was designed to provide medical assistance to poor pregnant mothers, “The new government program would facilitate the function of maternity among the very classes in which the absolute necessity is to discourage it.” By encouraging government programs which would help the eugenics movement and discouraging those which would retard it, Sanger admitted her interest in government pressure and involvement in eugenics.
She hoped to limit the number of mothers who exhibited “parental irresponsibility” by encouraging those mothers not to have children. In her book, “The Pivot of Civilization,” she recorded several examples of women who unsuccessfully parented their children out of ignorance of proper parenting methods. These mothers were unfit, not because they were unintelligent or of a different ethnic group, but because they lacked the knowledge necessary to parent correctly. For Sanger, the consequences of “irresponsible and chance parenthood” were “feeble-mindedness, crime, and syphilis.” Thus Sanger’s definition of unfit was broad and encompassed even mothers who would not otherwise have qualified as unfit.
As a eugenicist, Margaret Sanger went so far as to advocate for the sterilization of the unfit. “Moreover, when we realize that each feeble-minded person is a potential source of an endless progeny of defect, we prefer the policy of immediate sterilization, of making sure that parenthood is absolutely prohibited to the feeble-minded,” Sanger wrote. She explained in her writings that the “laisser-faire” approach was a good theory, but that it had not worked to discourage the feeble-minded from having children. “The grosser, the more obvious, the undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind,” she wrote. Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court case which determined that involuntary sterilization of the unfit was an acceptable use of the police powers, gave Mrs. Sanger the platform she needed to directly advocate for sterilization.
Margaret Sanger would have hated Care Net. Even as she wrote to encourage government programs which would promote eugenics, Sanger wrote against “maternity centers” and charity programs. She viewed maternity centers as useless because, instead of teaching poor women how to prevent pregnancy, they simply facilitated, and thus encouraged, pregnancy and childbirth. “The poor woman is taught how to have her seventh child, when what she wants to know is how to avoid bringing into the world her eighth,” Sanger wrote of maternity centers. By painting maternity centers as cruel and unfeeling, and by promoting government involvement as positive and helpful, Sanger betrayed her preference for more forceful eugenic practices.
Maternity centers were not the only charities Sanger criticized. In her book, The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger dedicated an entire chapter to the ineffectiveness of modern charities. By providing money and resources to the poor, charities allowed the lower classes to have and provide for more children, according to Sanger. “The most serious charge that can be brought against modern ‘benevolence,’” she wrote, “is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents, and dependents.” In the instance of eugenics, Sanger preferred government involvement to local charity. This preference betrayed her preference for force over voluntary participation in the matter of preventing childbearing among the poor.
If you have questions, or want to get more context, 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!
Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization, 197.
Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization, 199.
Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization, 207.
Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization, 218.