Thursday, July 7, 2011

What Margaret Sanger really said about infanticide and abortion

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger, founder of America's family planning movement, may be the most lied-about woman on the Internet.

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'ĂȘtre. 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?

28 comments:

BlueDeacon said...

Thank you for publishing this -- being suspicious about the motives of some anti-abortionists, I also did some research and made similar conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. As a pro-lifer myself, I found it very interesting and enlightening. Thank you for your research.

Anonymous said...

If this is true, then I am puzzled as to why the current and historical planned parethood has been so adamant about not allowing young women to know all their alternatives, but rather convince them abortion is the right thing to do. Must not the fruit of the organization stem from the root...?

BlueDeacon said...

Not necessarily, because times change. When abortion was made illegal at the turn of the last century, it had nothing to do with "morality"; rather, many women were being left financially destitute by men looking only to "score." Today, however, women have become more openly sexual, which to some men is threatening.

carol D. said...

I don't frequent the sites that made these charges against Sanger, so had never heard them. I have read that Sanger endorsed the eugenics movement of her era, which isn't surprising, or condemning. In the predominant farm culture of the early 20th Century this "good breeding" thinking made sense to many decent people, who would not have foreseen it leading to a Hitler. I have also read that the eugenics programs at university level persisted well into the 1960, with the last one closing late in that decade, which does show the persistence of "racial purity" thinking even well after Hitler among intellectuals. I'd be interested to know if anyone reading this discussion can verify or correct Sanger's involvement with the eugenics movement/thinking.

BlueDeacon said...

I do know that she opposed promoting eugenics as government policy.

llmarmalade said...

In her article "A Plan for Peace" she states, "To give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.
g. to apportion farm lands and homesteads for these segregated persons where they would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives."
Furthermore her use of the word "feebleminded" is exceedingly broad and could apply to almost anyone. She did have a "Negro Project" and she did speak in front of the KKK.

Ann Spangler said...

Lavonne

Fascinating article. Thanks for this.

LaVonne Neff said...

Yes, llmarmalade, there was a Negro Project. You can read about it here: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/secure/newsletter/articles/bc_or_race_control.html . And yes, she spoke to the wives of KKK members - and found it a strange and upsetting experience (it's in her autobiography). And yes, she advocated sterilization or segregation for certain groups (not racially based), as did quite a lot of thinkers in her day. Her primary focus, however, was on improving the lives of the poor through teaching them how to limit the number of their children.

Anonymous said...

So, because she explained why killing a baby was a good thing makes it ok? Really? My mom and father were both from families 12+. NONE of those children turned to any of the things Sanger listed. All people should have a choice and the last time I checked babies are human. You are blinded by your own hypocrisy.... Sad!

LaVonne Neff said...

I really wish, Anonymous, that you had read my article carefully before commenting on it. Sanger was in favor of birth control but opposed to abortion. Her comment about killing babies was a figure of speech, not a recommendation, as the context makes clear.

Shouting Thomas said...

You've turned the language inside out in an attempt to cleanse Sanger of her sins.

And, you've failed.

Yes, she was a bitter proponent of infanticide and abortion. And her animosity was particularly directed against blacks.

LaVonne Neff said...

I'm not trying to absolve anybody of their sins - I'm trying only to get at the truth about Sanger, which seems to be largely absent on the "shouting" types of websites. Her views on eugenics were, I believe, entirely wrong, though extremely common in her day. And I have seen no evidence to contradict what I said in this post, that she was opposed to infanticide and abortion.

BlueDeacon said...

Shouting Thomas -- Prove that. I did some research on Sanger before LaVonne wrote this blog entry, and my findings correspond with hers.

Anonymous said...

Still quite a callous quote in my opinion. I know many people from me, my parents and grandparents generation who attributed their success in life to the large family they grew up in.

BlueDeacon said...

It's not likely that you lived in New York City, and certainly not during the turn of the last century, when and where Sanger did her work. In her context too many children resulted in early death and more illness, so she wanted women to be able to control their fertility.

Anonymous said...

"The ministers 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 to any of their more rebellious members."

Commenting on the 'Negro Project' in a letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble, December 10, 1939. - Sanger manuscripts, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, North Hampton, Massachusetts. Also described in Linda Gordon's Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1976.

Explain this away, please - I've LOVE to hear your apology.

BlueDeacon said...

I would have to see the context -- we already know that many of her more "inflammatory" statements were indeed distorted. On top of that, MLK Jr. received an award from PP in 1966 -- hardly someone who believed in racial "extermination."

LaVonne Neff said...

Anonymous, I'm well aware of that paragraph. For a balanced discussion of it, see http://www.factcheck.org/2011/11/cains-false-attack-on-planned-parenthood/.

mkdixon said...

Well, LaVonne, I read your post and thought you made some good points. Then, I read the chapter from Sanger's book where the quote came from and was appalled. She talks of women as if she is talking of cattle. She was not just talking about women in the inner city of New York City, she even speaks derogatorily of wealthy women who had many children. I am not convinced that she oppossed abortion based on this chapter of her book. http://www.bartleby.com/1013/5.html

Rick Nowlin said...

It doesn't suggest that she didn't. Remember that abortion was illegal then anyway but went on anyway despite the law.

mumsy said...

Perhaps before defending her and her stance as a sign of the times that she lived in, you should remember that even today racist, bigoted people exist, but that would not excuse me taking up their banner. Margaret Sanger was a woman full of anger and hate, not love. Her goal in limiting the the number of births by African-Americans and the Irish had nothing to do with a love for the women of these groups, but everything to do with her hate. Furthermore you may interpret her writings however you wish, but the woman herself was quite clear on her racial hatred. Just google the video from her 60 Minutes appearance. It is very difficult to rewrite what is coming from her own lips, or to talk about context. If she and her counterparts had won I nor my husband would exist, both from large families, both considered mixed race. My husband commits the double sin her opinion of being Irish and Native American. A vile creature and her mark on this country in the millions of aborted babies.

LaVonne Neff said...

I followed your suggestion and found this 60 Minutes interview: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/sanger_margaret_t.html. In it Mrs. Sanger doesn't say anything at all about race, unless you count the place where she notes that her mother was Irish. Did you have a different interview in mind? Can you provide a link to it, or to a transcript of it?

mumsy said...

Interesting. I am left wondering if she did more than one interview and where to find the video that I watched of her. I assure you it was available and not just as a transcript. Also what was discussed wasn't what is in this transcript. I don't have a link for it at this time, but the focus was her racial opinions on eugenics, not the Catholic church. But when I also put this in a search engine it did not come up??? Might require more searching, which I'm not getting paid for right now.
I will say this though: I agree with you, Margaret Sanger would be appalled to find that the new focus of her organization is abortion. That was never her intent in the founding of this organization. And I experienced the modern PP back in the 80's. My husband had just started working for a new company and our health insurance hadn't started, I visited them for a pregnancy test and ended up locked in a room for fifteen minutes , being told how the best thing I could do for my child was get an abortion. The test came back and I wasn't even pregnant.

Unknown said...

In response to Anonymous's quote: " "The ministers 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 to any of their more rebellious members.""

The quote is "we DO NOT want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population" (emphasis mine). I have no idea of the context of this, but out of context, it seems that Sanger is not in favor of any sort of race extermination--but against that notion.

She was highly controversial, obviously. But I see no hatred in her writings.

Samual Blanche said...

One cause of great frustration to me, is the literary habit of dissolving the potency of a persons words and actions by writing a long winded explanation on how the norms of persons society affected their outlook, somehow this dilutes the wrongness of their words (You just need to understand her position see?). Her conclusion "The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it" is not misunderstood, she blamed ALL of the large families for bringing evil into the world, not just poor ones. Margaret generalized a lot in her work, and was very wrong on many levels in her diagnosis of society; not least her "scientific proof". I do not excuse the racist who grew up in a racist home for his actions or writing, simply because it was his environment that formed his outlook. I am fascinated by Hitler, and what forces external and internal drove him to make the decisions that he did, but I would not be any less outraged at his actions if I found out that horrors were pushed on him as a child; he you see, still made the choice to do what he did. Understanding a person is fine, but when that "understanding" results in just a bombardment of other peoples literary analysis and opinions, it becomes just a muddle in which the author is allowed to escape the sharp scrutiny of logic. I have taken an interest in this, and in her work. I am indeed outraged by her words, and it is perfectly understandable and justified that people be outraged that an organization such as planned parenthood originated from the ideology of woman such as herself. Thank you for the blog post, it stimulated me to research this.

Rick Nowlin said...

Samuel -- Had you lived back then you might have said or done the same thing; it's easy to dissect such comments from the safe distance of history without considering the immediate context.

Rick Nowlin said...

Samuel -- Sanger was in fact being sarcastic when she wrote that clause. It's easy from the safe distance of history to dismiss her words without understanding the context in which she lived.