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Eugenics part of Sanger legacy

by Mary Senander
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 14, 1993

Ironically, just as the provocative Anne Frank exhibit leaves town, self-appointed custodians of the First Amendment are flocking to defend Margaret Sanger, a woman who embraced and launched for public consumption some of the very ideas that eventually led to Anne Frank's death.

Those who support posting Margaret Sanger's picture at a local Catholic university library maintain she is a worthy role model of one who put her convictions into action. If we accept that myopic premise - paying little or no attention to what those convictions were - there is no problem, But Sanger's commitment to eugenics - an elitist and dangerous philosophy that favors (among other things) controlled breeding to improve the quality of the race - disqualifies her as a figure worthy of emulation.

Contemporary liberal social planners have elevated Sanger to sainthood, protesting that her birth control campaign was nothing more than a vehicle for economic betterment and health for the masses. But Sanger's own well-documented words, publications and associations indicate a deeper and darker motivation. Sanger began publishing the Birth Control Review in 1917 and served as its editor until 1938. The May 1919 Review proclaimed, "More children for the fit, less for the unfit." By unfit, Sanger meant the mentally retarded or physically handicapped; later her definition expanded.

In November 1921 the review issued a clarion call: "Birth control, to create a race of thoroughbreds." Sanger suggested that parents should "apply for babies as immigrants have to apply for visas." By 1925, she was a true convert to eugenics, setting up birth control clinics in poor neighborhoods populated by "Latins" and "Slavs" (both groups heavily Catholic) and "Hebrews" - groups she had targeted as threats because of their increasing numbers. She spoke of those who were "irresponsible and reckless," among them those "whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers."

Her plan for peaceful genocide gained converts. Within a few years, the review had a circulation of about 10,000, and distinguished experts of like persuasion were eager to contribute to its pages. In 1933, her Review published a special edition devoted entirely to eugenics, with contributors like Dr. Lathrop Stoddard and Harry Laughlin, both directors in the American Birth Control League (ABCL) that Sanger had founded in 1923. (The league eventually became known as "Planned Parenthood.") Stoddard's books were blatantly racist. In 1924, he had testified before Congress as an expert witness on America's immigration policies, warning that Jewish money and Jewish guile were inflicting on this continent a race of low types who had no legal right to be admitted even by the existing legal standards. Another contributor to Sanger's journal was Norman E. Himes, who claimed there were genetic differences between Catholics and non-Catholics.

In the October 1926 Review, Sanger announced her idea for eugenic sterilization: "There is only one reply to a request for a higher birthrate among the intelligent, and that is to ask the government to first take off the burdens of the insane and the feeble-minded from your backs." Eugenicists like Sanger concluded that the poor were both stupid and immoral, fueling campaigns for sterilization during the Depression. (By 1932, 27 states had compulsory sterilization laws.)

In 1939, the ABCL and Sanger's Clinical Research Bureau merged to form the Birth Control Federation of America (BFCA). Dr. Clarence J. Gamble, previously a director of the ABCL, was elected the BCFA regional director in the South. Almost immediately, he drew up a memorandum for his plans for the "Negro Project." Gamble's plan included placing black leaders in positions where it would appear that they were in charge (in order to counter the perception by black leaders who might regard birth control as an extermination plot). Sanger agreed: "We do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten that idea out if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members."

Histories of the German euthanasia movement generally agree that German sterilization policies and, eventually, Hitler's Final Solution were strongly influenced by the American eugenics movement.

While she may have been uncomfortable with the (logical) extension of eugenics in Hitler's Germany, I've never found anything to indicate that Sanger recanted her belief in eugenics.

The philosophy that some people are better off dead or not being born - not only for their own sakes but for the sake of others - remains alive and well. Bigotry and racism still compete for followers and manifest themselves in programs from "racial cleansing" to eugenic abortion. As one example, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, one of Sanger's contemporary disciples, lauds abortion for lowering the numbers of children born with Down's syndrome and insists on more funding for Planned Parenthood and its policies.

Sanger's legacy, Planned Parenthood, continues to target minority and poor neighborhoods with its school-based and other programs. U.S. abortion kills proportionately more black babies than white. Planned Parenthood also exports its elitist population control programs to the Third World.

With or without a poster, the spirit of Margaret Sanger lives. But is it really a spirit we want to celebrate and defend?

Copyright 1993 Star Tribune