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Margaret Sanger Did Not Advocate 'Exterminating the Negro Population'

A sentence the Planned Parenthood founder once wrote has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented.

Published Sep 13, 2023

 (Library of Congress Catalog/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Library of Congress Catalog/Wikimedia Commons

A quote from birth control advocate and sometime eugenicist Margaret Sanger has been making the rounds on the internet for many years. Viral posts claim she once wrote: "We do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population."

Those who share the quote typically interpret it to mean that Sanger's real intent, regarding birth control and race, was indeed to "exterminate" Black people. As such it has been used as fodder by anti-abortion activists to impugn the motives of Planned Parenthood, an organization that emerged from Sanger's own activism. 

For example, former U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, shared the quote in 2020, writing, "Stunning admission: at heart of abortion founding in U.S. is racism & killing of blacks, immigrants, disabled & poor."

Here is a similar post from 2015: 

While Sanger indeed used those exact words in a 1939 letter, the posts in which they appear routinely omit important context. Sanger was not admitting to some nefarious plot to "exterminate" the Black population with birth control. Rather, she was anticipating an obstacle to the acceptance of birth control given a sentiment that was already prevalent in that population, namely racial mistrust. 

Historical Context

At the time, some white family planning activists excluded Black people from their clinics. Sanger, who had opened the first family planning clinic in New York in 1916, aiming to help recent poor, immigrant women who were mostly Jewish or Italian, opened the first Harlem clinic that would serve a predominantly Black population in 1930.

In the late 1930s, Sanger began an initiative called "The Negro Project," which opened more family planning clinics in the rural South. In her letter, Sanger was advocating for the inclusion of Black ministers and physicians in an effort to engage the Black community, and more importantly to allay suspicions that birth control might be a racist conspiracy to decimate the Black population. 

The full text of the letter is available online, and the paragraph in question is reproduced below:

The minister's work is also important and 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.

As a contributor to the Margaret Sanger Papers Project explained in 2011, "Sanger, a champion of educating each woman about her reproductive options, was aware of fears among African Americans – inflamed by the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and others – about the survival of the black race." 

Garvey, according to a Guttmacher Institute report by race, gender and law scholar Dorothy Roberts, opposed birth control, describing it as a form of "race suicide." In Roberts' book "Killing the Black Body," she described how Garvey's organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, passed a resolution at its 1934 meeting condemning birth control as "attempting to interfere with the course of nature and with the purpose of the God in whom we believe."

In her letter, Sanger was proposing a strategy to help allay precisely those fears. "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." 

While her views were not expressed in a very "politically correct" way by modern-day standards, Sanger was clearly advocating for birth control work to include more Black physicians and ministers who could inform their communities from within. 

At the time, activists like Sanger were overwhelmingly white, according to Cathy Moran Hajo's book, "Birth Control on Main Street." For that reason, prominent Black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune played a crucial role in supporting efforts to extend birth control to the Black community, highlighting how it would improve health and provide economic benefits. "It was also a loaded topic for many African Americans," Hajo wrote, "who associated it with genocide, race suicide, and white control over African American fertility." 

Sanger and Eugenics

But did Sanger herself ascribe to racial purity views of the era, such as eugenics? Historians differ on how much stock she put in eugenics, though plenty of evidence shows Sanger both advocated for it and critiqued it. Eugenics is a now-discredited practice that "aimed to improve humans by either encouraging or discouraging reproduction based on genetic traits." Its principles were embraced by Nazi Germany, but a contemporary Washington Post analysis argued that connecting the Nazis' views tightly to Sanger's would be tenuous, at best. 

That Post story observed that Sanger appeared in 1938 to argue in favor of elements of the German eugenics program when it came to handling people with medical issues: "Reports in medical journals state that the indications laid down in the German law are being carefully observed. These are congenital feeble-mindedness; schizophrenia, circular insanity; heredity epilepsy; hereditary chorea (Huntington's); hereditary blindness or deafness; grave hereditary bodily deformity and chronic alcoholism. The rights of the individual could be equally well safeguarded here, but in no case should the rights of society, or which he or she is a member, be disregarded."

In an apparent contradiction, she also wrote about her engagement with the Anti-Nazi Committee in the United States. New York University's Margaret Sanger Papers Project described how she was angered by the dangers of fascism, and the Nazis even burned her books in 1933. The project described her ties to American eugenics as largely "limited" and "self-serving," as she used only some of its arguments as a means to promote birth control "as a science-based remedy for overpopulation, poverty, disease and famine."

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project recorded Sanger's support of eugenics and featured a number of her writings on the subject. In a 1919 article, she argued that birth control and self-determination of mothers was necessary for "racial betterment," and eugenics needed to work hand-in-hand with the birth control movement. She wrote, "Like the advocates of Birth Control, the eugenists, for instance, are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit."

However, she also emphasized the differences between the movements: "The eugenist also believes that a woman should bear as many healthy children as possible as a duty to the state. We hold that the world is already over-populated. Eugenists imply or insist that a woman's first duty is to the state; we contend that her duty to herself is her duty to the state."

She concluded that the two groups working together would aid "racial betterment," though it is unclear if she was referring to a specific race:

Eugenics without Birth Control seems to us a house builded upon the sands. It is at the mercy of the rising stream of the unfit. It cannot stand against the furious winds of economic pressure which have buffeted into partial or total helplessness a tremendous proportion of the human race. Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment.

In a 1921 article, she argued, "the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective."

But in the process of using the eugenics movement to increase birth control access, her language around the issue was dehumanizing. In a 1932 article she argued against immigration of people who carried diseases that would negatively impact poor communities:

. . . keep the doors of Immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feeble-minded, idiots, morons, insane, syphiletic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class [...] apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring. 

In the academic paper "Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?" published in Family Planning Perspectives in 1985, Charles Valenza argued that Sangers' provision of birth control to Black people was not motivated by racism. 

"The only area Sanger is in agreement with the eugenicists is in her belief that severely retarded people should not bear children," Valenza wrote. The paper outlines the varied views among eugenicists at the time (emphasis, ours):

The basic concept of the eugenics movement in the 1920s and 1930s was that a better breed of humans would be created if the 'fit' had more children and the 'unfit' had fewer. This concept influenced a broad spectrum of thought, but there was little consensus on the definitions of fit and unfit. In theory, the movement was not racist--its message intended to cross race barriers for the overall advancement of mankind. Most eugenicists agreed that birth control would be a detriment to the human race and were opposed to it. Charges that Sanger's motives for promoting birth control were eugenic are not supported. In part of her most important work, "Pivot of Civilization," Sanger's dissent from eugenics was made clear. 

Indeed, in "Pivot of Civilization" Sanger appeared to be critical of some elements of eugenics:

Eugenics seems to me to be valuable in its critical and diagnostic aspects, in emphasizing the danger of irresponsible and uncontrolled fertility of the "unfit" and the feeble-minded establishing a progressive unbalance in human society and lowering the birth-rate among the "fit." But in its so-called "constructive" aspect, in seeking to reestablish the dominance of a healthy strain over the unhealthy, by urging an increased birth-rate among the fit, the Eugenists really offer nothing more farsighted than a "cradle competition" between the fit and the unfit. They suggest in very truth, that all intelligent and respectable parents should take as their example in this grave matter of child-bearing the most irresponsible elements in the community.

In 2020, Planned Parenthood removed Sanger's name from their New York City Health Center, due to her connections to the eugenics movement. The organization acknowledged her troubling beliefs:

Sanger also believed in eugenics — an inherently racist and ableist ideology that labeled certain people unfit to have children. Eugenics is the theory that society can be improved through planned breeding for "desirable traits" like intelligence and industriousness.

Margaret Sanger was so intent on her mission to advocate for birth control that she chose to align herself with ideologies and organizations that were explicitly ableist and white supremacist. In doing so, she undermined reproductive freedom and caused irreparable damage to the health and lives of generations of Black people, Latino people, Indigenous people, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with low incomes, and many others. Her beliefs opened the door for people opposed to reproductive freedom, including safe and legal abortion, to make false and unfounded claims that Planned Parenthood today has a racist agenda.

Planned Parenthood denounces Margaret Sanger's belief in eugenics. 

While Sanger held troubling views that were fairly common for her time, she also advocated for reaching Black populations with the benefits of family planning and birth control. Whether she herself held the full range of eugenicist views is widely debated, and her own writing shows that she both appreciated and was critical of the movement. In any case, the quote about "exterminating the Negro population" has consistently been taken out of context. Sanger was not insidiously advocating extermination, but rather seeking to counter such apprehensions already present in the Black community. 

Sources

Hajo, Cathy Moran. "Birth Control on Main Street: Organizing Clinics in the United States, 1916-1939." United States: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

Kessler, Glenn. "Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood and Black Abortions: Ben Carson's False Claim." Washington Post, 7 Dec. 2021. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/08/18/carsons-claim-that-planned-parenthood-targets-blacks-to-control-that-population/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

"Margaret Sanger Papers Project." New York University Digital Humanities, 12 Sept. 2023, https://digitalhumanities.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

Opposition Claims About Margaret Sanger . Planned Parenthood, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/URLs_Cited/OT2018/18-483/18-483-2.pdf. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

Sanger, Margaret. "Birth Control and Racial Betterment." Feb. 1919, https://m-sanger.org/items/show/1440. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

Sanger, Margaret. Letter to Dr. Gamble. 1939, https://libex.smith.edu/omeka/files/original/d6358bc3053c93183295bf2df1c0c931.pdf. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

Sanger, Margaret. "The Pivot of Civilization." Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1689/1689-h/1689-h.htm#link2HCH0004. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project. https://sanger.hosting.nyu.edu/articles/sanger-hitler_equation/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023.

Valenza, C. "Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?" Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 17, no. 1, 1985, pp. 44–46. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

"What Margaret Sanger Really Said About Eugenics and Race." Time, 14 Oct. 2016, https://time.com/4081760/margaret-sanger-history-eugenics/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023. 

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.