Margaret Sanger was a pioneer of women’s reproductive rights, dedicating her life to opening family planning clinics around the world and making knowledge about birth control easily available. When Sanger began her life as an activist, the political struggle over women’s rights was very different than it is today. The Comstock Laws that Sanger was arrested for violating illegalized merely sending information regarding birth control in the mail! With that in mind, it comes as little surprise that Sanger’s views do not fit easily into today’s debate about women’s reproductive rights. Sanger was ambivalent, to say the least, about most important issue in recent years : access to abortions.
In Sanger’s opinion, abortion was an evil practice that would become obsolete once birth control was practiced and understood by women and families throughout the world. In 1932, Sanger wrote: “Although abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother, the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious.” Although she strongly condemned the practice, she felt even more strongly that “it is a woman’s duty and right to have for herself the right to say when she shall and shall not have children.” Women’s right to control their reproduction took precedent over any moral or religious position. Unlike many today, Sanger trusted women to make the best decision for themselves:
“The only weapon that women have and the most uncivilized weapon that they have to use if they will not submit to having children every year or every year and a half, the weapon they use is abortion. . . . What does this mean? It means it is a very bad sign if women have to indulge in it, and it means they are absolutely determined that they cannot continue bringing children into the world that they cannot clothe, feed, and shelter. It is woman’s instinct, and she knows herself when she should and should not give birth to children, and it is just as natural to trust that instinct and to let her be the one to say and much more natural than it is to leave it to some unknown God for her to judge her by.”(MS, “Debate On Birth Control: First Speech,” Dec. 12, 1920 [MSM S76:0923 ].)
If you are interested in reading more about Margaret Sanger’s position on abortion, be sure to read our “interview” with Sanger in the Margaret Sanger Paper Project Newsletter!
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You seem to be arguing that while she was deeply offended by abortion, she was still pro-choice, and you’re supporting that with the bold-faced quote. I find that less than convincing. When she writes, “I claim it is a woman’s duty and right to have for herself the right to say when she shall and shall not have children,” you _could_ interpret that as advocacy of a right to abortion, but in context (the quote is from 1920) it seems to me that she’s merely advocating a right to contraception.
She also seemed to believe that the only reason that abortion was felt to be needed was because of the absence of birth control. The pro-choice interpretation of saying about birth control that “this is the only cure to abortion” is that she would oppose prohibiting abortion and that we should only try to reduce abortion by promoting the use of birth control. The pro-life interpretation is that she believed that if there was no lack of access to birth control, then there would be no _need_ for abortion. Presumably, if there was no longer a genuine need, then it would not be wrong to prohibit it.
Moreover, when she speaks of women aborting “children… they cannot clothe, feed, and shelter,” she is envisioning a situation where giving birth to an unwanted child would lead ultimately to the child’s illness and death. So, even if she were advocating (and I don’t think she was) that women had a right to choose whether or not to engage in the “taking of life” [her words, not mine], then she was speaking about cases where they were taking lives that were doomed to die anyway. That’s nothing at all like the ‘right to choose’ of today.
In our country today no one who doesn’t want to raise a child ever has to, and no child needs to die because it’s parents can’t provide for it. Contraception is widely available and can be provided at little or no cost to the poor. Today, choosing abortion isn’t a matter of whether we trust if mothers who can’t prevent pregnancy can instinctively know when a child would be born with no future worth living for. Now abortion is about trusting women to decide if avoiding changes to their own lives is a good reason to “take a life.”
In other words, now it’s about valuing a women’s autonomy interests more than the life and interests of the unborn. While I think that you’re probably right that she was less disgusted by abortion than concerned about giving women control over their reproduction _if_ the interests of the unborn and the woman were aligned and ending the life meant it was spared suffering. That’s quite different from saying that she was pro-choice, In fact, one could take that sort of view and still be opposed to pro-choice views on abortion.
Presumably those of you working at the Sanger Papers are pro-choice, and I’m wondering if your suggesting that she was too might be because you’re taking for granted that you and your subject are of like minds on the matter. I’ve not read anything that made me think that she would still want there to be a choice “to kill” [her characterization again] when those interests were clearly opposed. You have her papers. Did she actually write anything to indicate that she felt that way?
P.S. This link is dead: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/secure/newsletter/articles/ms-abortion.html The correct url is: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/articles/ms_abortion.php Also, the pingback to “Amusing Twitter Debate With Anti-Choice Partisans” isn’t nearly as amusing when you consider that ‘anti-choice’ is an epithet. It’s what pro-choicer’s call pro-lifers to show that they don’t respect them. Pro-lifer’s use the term ‘pro-abortion’ when they’re being impolite. Generally it’s probably better if people avoid using terms meant to belittle one side or the other.
Joshua Born said:
I realize this is 4 years later, but ockraz, you hit the nail right on the head. Margaret Sanger died decades before the pro-choice vs. pro-life dichotomy arose, and her views on abortion don’t fit neatly with either faction. Unfortunately, most of those who write about her are of one camp or the other, so the Internet is full of a lot specious articles like this one, taking a quote or two of hers out of context in order to shoe horn her beliefs into fitting with the author’s (or in the pro-life literature, what the author wants to condemn.) The “interview” article linked to here is similar.
Her actual views are pretty straightforward. https://fecundity.blog/margaret-sanger-on-abortion-in-her-own-words.html
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