Here at the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, we’re no strangers to misquotes, misinterpretations, and all sorts of other misinformation about Sanger. It often originates from anti-abortion proponents deliberately attempting to discredit Sanger and, by extension, Planned Parenthood.
Just do a search through Twitter for Margaret Sanger, and you’ll likely find one particularly sloppy Photoshopped picture of her speaking to a group of KKK members. Deliberate misinformation is common–but it is also fairly easy to misunderstand or overly simplify Sanger’s intentions by relying highly interpretive secondary sources.
Recently brought to our attention was a book containing a section on eugenics that mentions Sanger—titled Against Their Will:The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America by Allen M. Hornblum, Judith Lynn Newman, and Gregory J. Dober (2013). You would not expect to find Margaret Sanger mentioned in this sad history, but she does turn up in the overview of the eugenics movement that opens the book.
Its only coverage is a short, but fairly harsh mention of Sanger that appears to quote her:
Margaret Sanger, the great social activist and birth control proponent, was even more strident in her denunciation of society’s unfit elements, ‘vigorously oppos[ing] charitable efforts to uplift the downtrodden’ and arguing that ‘it was better that the cold and hungry be left without help’ so the eugenically fit would face less of a challenge from ‘the unfit.’ She often compared the poor and the great mass of dispossessed to ‘human waste’ and ‘weeds’ needing to be ‘exterminated.’
Now, it’s true that Margaret Sanger believed in eugenics, though she despised the eugenics of the Nazis and other extremists. But I found these quotes unlikely words of Sanger, so I dug through the notes to find the source. Sure enough, the quotes come from a secondary source—Edwin Black’s War Against The Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (2003). Black did read primary sources–chiefly Sanger’s 1922 The Pivot of Civilization, and determined that Sanger was so anti-charity that she encouraged leaving those in need to die.
But in reading Pivot myself, it seems far more likely that Sanger criticized charity for its approach–treating the problem rather than preventing it. Black quoted Sanger, who said that “organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease,” the disease being the “constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents” (Pivot of Civilization, 109). Her purpose here does not seem to be the end of charity towards the poor and mentally ill. But the larger point of the chapter was that it was perhaps more kind to—through the use of birth control—prevent the birth of people who would grow up poor and dependent on the state, rather than offering them meager charity after they were born. Sanger’s views on philanthropy can be summed up neatly:
The poor woman is taught how to have her seventh child, when what she wants to know is how to avoid bringing into the world her eighth. (Pivot of Civilization, 116).
As for the ugly terms attributed to Sanger, the story is more complex. For Sanger, the unfit referred to the mentally ill, physically disabled and otherwise “unfit.” The context of her discussion of them as “human waste” was in terms of the cost to society of supporting those who
could not support themselves.
The term “human weeds” comes from botanist Luther Burbank,
“America . . . is like a garden in which the gardener pays no attention to the weeds. Our criminals are our weeds, and weeds breed fast and are intensely hardy. They must be eliminated. Stop permitting criminals and weaklings to reproduce. All over the country to-day we have enormous insane asylums and similar institutions where we nourish the unfit and criminal instead of exterminating them. Nature eliminates the weeds, but we turn them into parasites and allow them to reproduce.”-Burbank, quoted by Sanger in “Is Race Suicide Possible?” (1925)
In her 1923 article “A Better Race Through Birth Control,” Sanger herself points out the dangers of
The object of civilization is to obtain the highest and most splendid culture of which humanity is capable. But such attainment is unthinkable if we continue to breed from the present race stock that yields us our largest amount of progeny. Some method must be devised to eliminate the degenerate and the defective; for these act constantly to impede progress and ever increasingly drag down the human race.–A Better Race Through Birth Control” (Nov. 1923)
but the method Sanger suggested was birth control:
Give the women of the poorer classes a chance also to limit and control their families, and it will be found that in very many cases the material is equally good. The difference is that, like plants crowded too close together on poor soil, there is no chance to develop and the whole families are left impoverished in mind and body. Give room for each [to] grow and all may become fine and healthy American citizens.–”A Better Race Through Birth Control” (Nov. 1923)
Sanger’s writings were certainly eugenic and not always particularly kind towards those she referred to as “unfit”. However, that she called for the end of philanthropy, thought “it was better that the cold and hungry be left without help”, and was a supporter of “extermination” of the poor and disabled are definitely Black’s interpretation of her work and not quotes from Sanger. The authors of Against Their Will—rather than using Sanger’s words—make assumptions based on a secondary source, one with an interpretation of Sanger that not everyone agrees with. Don’t believe me? I highly encourage you to create your own analysis by skipping the secondary sources, and reading Sanger’s writings for yourself.
For a more comprehensive look at Sanger’s complicated relationship with eugenics, search the Speeches and Articles of Margaret Sanger.