Although Margaret Sanger died in 1966, debates about her legacy still shape how politicians talk about the important issue of abortion rights. On Sunday, October 30, Republican candidate for president Herman Cain gave an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation”. He claimed that if voters wanted to understand the real meaning of abortion in America, they needed to “go back and look at the history and look at Margaret Sanger’s own words.” But Cain’s knowledge of Sanger seems more rooted in convenient myth than in historical fact. The phone has been ringing off the hook today at the Margaret Sanger Papers with journalists and commentators calling to find out the real history.
Cain claimed that early Planned Parenthood clinics were build predominately in black neighborhoods as part of a plan of racial extermination. He said, “So if you go back and look up the history–secondly, look at where most of them were build, 75 percent of those facilities were built in the black community– and Margaret Sanger’s own words, she didn’t use the word ‘genocide’ but she did talk about preventing the increasing numbers of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.”
Although Sanger allied birth control with the eugenics movement that was popular in her era, Planned Parenthood in no way encouraged abortion among black communities. In fact, none of Sanger’s clinics performed abortions before Roe v. Wade in 1973. Racism in the world of family planning tended to express itself in the reverse: blacks were often excluded from clinics offering birth control services. Here at the Sanger Papers, we frequently write about the issue of race in our newsletters and publications. Cathy Moran Hajo, associate editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers, has recently addressed this in her book, Birth Control on Main Street (2010). There were a handful of clinics that serviced specifically black communities, but these received little assistance from white activists. Cain’s suggestion that 75% of clinics were in black neighborhoods is completely unfounded. “Whatever the activists’ personal beliefs about race may have been,” writes Hajo, “there was no grand program to exterminate nonwhites or the poor.”
This is not the first time Cain has distorted the history of birth control in order to advance his political views. In April of 2010, Cain made claims about Planned Parenthood’s alleged genocide plan that earned PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” status, meaning that they found no truth to the claim whatsoever. In fact, PolitiFact said, “Cain’s claim is a ridiculous, cynical play of the race card.”
Sunday’s interview is no different. In the Washington Post today, Glenn Kessler decries Cain’s rewriting of birth control history, relying on the research of Hajo and others to discredit this misuse of the past for politically expedient ends. CNN and Factcheck.org have also called the Sanger Papers looking for more information, and we expected to see pieces from them soon.