Busting Margaret Sanger

REUTERS/Mike Blake

Ken Blackwell Former Ohio Secretary of State
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Why is America’s national museum, the Smithsonian Institution, honoring an outspoken eugenicist who advocated the forced sterilization of millions of Americans? A racist who used abortion and birth control specifically to target the black population?

Last Thursday, I joined a group of pastors and pro-life leaders protesting the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for featuring a bust of Margaret Sanger in an exhibit honoring the civil rights movement. What a disgrace.

Sanger’s bust is placed, ironically, between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, two legitimate heroes of black Americans, a group Sanger sought, according to one of her own letters, to “exterminate.”

Lionized by the left for her radical feminist rhetoric and her contribution to “women’s rights” — birth control and abortion — Sanger is known nowadays for being the founder of abortion provider Planned Parenthood. But back in the 1920s, Sanger was one of the most influential eugenicists in the United States. The eugenics movement, now rightfully condemned, sought to improve the human race by preventing people deemed inferior from having children. Forced sterilization was the preferred method. The United States, to its shame, was the world’s eugenics leader. No fewer than 17 U.S. states enacted forced sterilization laws, beginning with Indiana in 1907. During the 1930s, as many as 4,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized every year. Nazi Germany didn’t pass its own sterilization law, which was modeled on California’s, until 1933.

In a 1932 article in her own magazine, Birth Control Review, Sanger called on Congress “to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” Sanger proposed allowing “dysgenic groups” to choose either sterilization or enforced segregation on remote farms, where they would spend their lives confined as manual laborers, isolated from the approved breeders. Shades of Nazi labor camps.

What does birth control have to do with eugenics? In 1922, Sanger wrote in her book The Pivot of Civilization, in a chapter titled “The Cruelty of Charity”:

“I think you must agree … that the campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics … Birth control propaganda is thus the entering wedge for the eugenic educator.”


“[t]oday eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.”

Sanger’s application of eugenics to the U.S. population was overtly racist. Her “Negro Project” involved making sex education, birth control and abortion widely available to the black community. Her motive was hardly to provide badly needed health care to the poor, as some would have us believe. We’ve already established that Sanger equated birth control and eugenics, and that the goal of eugenics was to eliminate undesirables from the gene pool.

Sanger wrote her infamous “extermination” line in a letter about the Negro Project to birth control advocate Clarence Gamble. Critics say Sanger revealed her true goal, to exterminate the Negro population, while defenders say she merely wanted to avoid having her project mischaracterized. Please forgive the lengthy quotation, but the context must be clear:

“I note that you doubt it worthwhile to employ a full time Negro physician. It seems to me from my experience where I have been in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table which means their ignorance, superstitions and doubts. They do not do this with the white people and if we can train the Negro doctor at the Clinic he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching results among the colored people. His work in my opinion should be entirely with the Negro profession and the nurses, hospital, social workers, as well as the County’s white doctors. His success will depend upon his personality and his training by us.

“The minister’s 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.”

In this letter, Sanger made a racist slur about blacks while describing them as precisely the sort of people she thought shouldn’t be permitted to reproduce (“ignorance, superstitions and doubts”). She also suggested hiring black doctors and ministers to act as Judas goats, leading black women to the slaughter. Mischaracterization?

Nevertheless, the American left is clinging desperately to the image of Sanger as civil rights heroine. Factcheck.org asserts that Sanger was simply trying to gain the trust of the black community. Before concluding that Sanger was working in the interest of blacks, however, Factcheck.org should have checked a few more facts. Sanger had already written that eugenics, through birth control, was the best solution to “racial, political and social problems,” and she clearly was applying eugenics to the black community. Shades of Hitler’s Final Solution to the “Jewish problem.”

In 1926 Sanger delivered a speech to the Ku Klux Klan, and later boasted that her speech led to a dozen invitations for more speeches. Is it plausible to believe that the KKK invited Sanger back to hear a message advocating civil rights?

Despite these facts, the National Portrait Gallery is refusing to remove Sanger’s bust from its civil rights exhibit. Is Margaret Sanger truly an American heroine?  Only if you believe making abortion widely available to women outweighs treating blacks like Untermenschen. The Smithsonian has no business honoring Margaret Sanger.

J. Kenneth Blackwell, a former Cincinnati mayor and Ohio Secretary of State, is a Policy Board member of the American Civil Rights Union.