Wait - I'll take that back. A lie is a conscious untruth, with intent to deceive. Certainly liars are involved with the mishmash of falsehood, half-truths, and logical fallacies relating to Ms. Sanger, but many honest people are now passing this misinformation along, sometimes embellishing it in the process. I believed some of it myself, though I wondered how a woman respected by so many in my mother's generation could be reviled by so many today.
So when I saw a copy of her Autobiography (1938) on a library bookshelf, I checked it out, found it fascinating, and reviewed it on my book blog, The Neff Review.
After I posted the review, a friend reminded me of a Sanger quotation that often shows up on anti-Sanger websites: "The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it." My friend told me that the sentence is from Sanger's Woman and the New Race (1920), so I immediately looked it up. Indeed it is there - at location 466 if you're reading it on Kindle - exactly as she quoted it. Margaret, I said to myself, what were you thinking?
To find out, I read the whole chapter in which the sentence appears (V: "The Wickedness of Creating Large Families"), and what Sanger was thinking became clear. Excessively large families, she argues, are the root cause of all kinds of evils: prostitution, low wages, child labor, war, the oppression of women, ill health, mental dejection, spiritual hopelessness, malnutrition, inadequate medical attention, crime, feeble-mindedness, insanity, child abuse, unchastity, and - especially - infant and child mortality. She quotes research showing that the likelihood of death before the first birthday rises with each additional child, reaching 60% by child number twelve - and, as she points out, many of the children who survive to age one will not make it to age five. Sanger is by no means advocating infanticide: she is using hyperbole to underline the unimaginably squalid conditions of the large working-class families she encountered in her daily work as a visiting nurse in New York tenements. "Let the day perish wherein I was born," wailed the suffering Job. "Why died I not from the womb?" The families Sanger served were equally miserable.
How can I know she is not advocating infanticide? Her second chapter is a history of infanticide - an extremely common practice from ancient times right up to the present day, though tending in modern times to be replaced by abortion. Frequently lumping abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment together, she calls them "abhorrent practices." "It is apparent," she writes, "that nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to the horrors of abortion and infanticide" [loc. 202]
Hold the phone - the horrors of abortion? Wasn't Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood? Didn't she promote abortion?
Not in her autobiography, at least, written when she was in her late 50s (see page 217, for example, where she says that abortion, no matter how early in the pregnancy, is the wrong way to limit family size, because it is the taking of human life), and certainly not in Woman and the New Race. Quoting estimates that between one and two million abortions are performed each year in the United States - in 1920, when the population was only a third of what it is today! - she writes:
Apparently, the numbers of these illegal operations are increasing from year to year. From year to year more women will undergo the humiliation, the danger and the horror of them, and the terrible record, begun with the infanticide of the primitive peoples, will go on piling up its volume of human misery and racial damage, until society awakens to the fact that a fundamental remedy must be applied. [Loc. 218]Sanger calls abortion "an abhorrent operation which kills the tenderness and delicacy of womanhood, even as it may injure or kill the body" [loc. 575]. "While there are cases where even the law recognizes abortion as justifiable when recommended by a physician," she writes, "I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization" [loc. 945].
Sanger was a Utopian visionary. In her view, widely available contraceptives would usher in a new age of health, happiness, and justice for all. War - the inevitable result of overpopulation and the concomitant search for new territory - would lose its raison d'être. Abortion would disappear:
When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race. There will be no killing of babies in the womb by abortion, nor through neglect in foundling homes, nor will there be infanticide. Neither will children die by inches in mills and factories. No man will dare to break a child's life upon the wheel of toil. [Loc. 1695](Note to the suspicious: when Sanger writes of "racial damage" and "a new race," she is referring to the whole human race. If she ever favors one subset of the human race over another, it appears neither in this book nor in her autobiography, though by lifting certain sentences out of context and applying the usual 21st-century usage of the word race, some writers have portrayed her as a racist.)
OK, Sanger was mistaken. If her figures are correct, over the last century the number of abortions in the U.S. has remained constant (though, since the population has tripled, that represents a major per capita decrease). Despite the availability of contraception, says the Guttmacher Institute's most recent fact sheet, "nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion. Twenty-two percent of all pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) end in abortion." If you want to argue that contraception does not prevent abortion, Planned Parenthood will provide the statistics to back you up.
But being mistaken is not a crime. It's not even a moral failing, if a person is using the best information she has - and if she is careful to consider the information's source, literary context, historical context, and use of logic. It's mistaken, though, to accuse Margaret Sanger of promoting infanticide and abortion when she worked tirelessly to make both of those desperate measures unnecessary. And it's morally wrong to pass on such accusations without thoroughly investigating them, as a means of discrediting political opponents.
And anyway, why would pro-lifers want to base a campaign against abortion on misinformation? Why not just sweetly point out that Planned Parenthood's founder called abortion a horror and devoted her life to making it unnecessary?