There are a multitude of current websites that inaccurately portray Margaret Sanger as a racist who wanted to sterilize certain races, based on her involvement with the Eugenics movement. Encountering this assumption, no matter how often I read or hear it, continues to frustrate me. So I was happy to see a recent article by Southern Illinois University professor of social work that examines some of these charges. Gerald V. O’Brian’s “Margaret Sanger and the Nazis: How Many Degrees of Separation,” puts those assumptions to rest by looking at the many misconceptions associated with the “devil,” Margaret Sanger.
Sanger stressed that people should reproduce only when they were mentally and economically fit to do so. Sanger’s main goal was to help people who did not want children. For many, poverty and ill health made it much more difficult to have and care for children. She sought to provide information and access to contraceptives for those individuals, but the impetus generally came from the patient. Since a majority of those unable to afford children were lower class people, including African Americans, people assume she was racist; however, this applied to ANYONE unable to mentally, physically, and economically support their children, and wanted birth control knowledge.
Sanger disagreed with many in the American Eugenics movement who wanted “racially fit mothers” to reproduce as much as possible. As stated above, Sanger felt that women should have the choice to decide to procreate. Though she did not support sterilization based on race, she did agree with the Eugenics movement that people who were not mentally competent to make reproductive decisions, e.g. “morons,” (given the terminology commonly used at the time), should be sterilized. This was also a concept supported by various religious groups and even President Roosevelt..
Looking at the German Eugenics movement, the state pushed women of specific ethnicity to have many children in an effort to “improve” the Aryan race. Sterilization and birth control were only for those seen as unfit by the state. The German definition of “fit” and “unfit” were clearly race based, and did not offer women any choice in the matter. If you were a healthy Aryan woman who did not want children, tough luck! You would receive no means of birth control in Nazi Germany. Essentially women who were racially fit were seen as breeding machines to expand Hitler’s army, a concept Sanger strongly disagreed with. In her 1921, “Eugenic Value of Birth Control,” Margaret Sanger stated,
Not until the parents of the world are thus given control over their reproductive faculties will it ever be possible not alone to improve the quality of the generations of the future, but even to maintain civilization even at its present level. Only by self-control of this type, only by intelligent mastery of the procreative powers can the great mass of humanity be awakened to the great responsibility of parenthood.
Gerald O, Brian, “Margaret Sanger and the Nazis: How Many Degrees of Separation?” July 3, 2013.
Margaret Sanger, “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda,” Oct 1921.