The potential mother is to be shown that maternity need not be slavery but the most effective avenue toward self-development and self-realization. Upon this basis only may we improve the quality of the race.”
(Sanger, “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda,” Birth Control Review, Oct. 1921, 5)
Margaret Sanger’s discussion of dysgenics provides some of the birth control advocate’s most troubling and problematic texts. Her complex perspectives have both frustrated supporters and offered fodder for those seeking to discredit her life’s work. Attempts by those with ideological, political, or other agendas to mislead opponents by avoiding fact and foregoing accuracy are not unique to the current environment. By extracting misleading soundbites from her forays into eugenics, detractors have painted Sanger as a racist and repurposed birth control as a means of controlling minority populations for decades. Manipulating Sanger’s words to support such a claim is historically inaccurate—a gross misuse of quotes without context. However, given the contested nature of the activist’s attempt to wed the function of birth control to the ideology of progressive eugenicists, exploring Sanger’s actual relationship with terms, such as dysgenics and eugenics, presents a valuable learning opportunity.
Before delving into Sanger’s actual views on the subject, it might be useful to first examine the terms dysgenics and eugenics as they were in the early part of the 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines dysgenics as referring to “Racial degeneration, or its study”—that is the elements that can lead to the deterioration of the human race or subdivisions within it. Eugenics, according to the OED, is the science of selective breeding designed to improve and strengthen the human race biologically, psychologically, behaviorally, etc.
By the end of the nineteenth century, selective breeding as a means of controlling the country’s genetic destiny and evolutionary tract was gaining popularity as a social and political ideal in America. This movement, most popularly linked to nativist groups, possessed two notable influences. First, the popularity of biological determinism encompasses both dysgenics and eugenics and came on the heels of Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton. Galton has been credited as the father of modern eugenics and for having laid the scientific and ideological groundwork for biological determinism—for many of the selective breeding ideas American eugenicists would eventually trumpet (Selden, Steven, “Transforming Better Babies Into Fitter Families,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149.2, June 2005, 202).
Then, following Galton’s numerous publications, changes in European emigration patterns began. Americans, who valued Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon traits, reacted defensively to new waves of immigrants, who did not possess these traits. In an attempt to both preserve and strengthen the national qualities they valued as “real American,” nativists turned to eugenics. By the early 1920s, as the movement surrounding theories of selective breeding designed to build stronger, healthier Americans had gained notable popularity, applications expanded. No longer did dysgenics and eugenics belong to the American nativists, but to a host of different groups with varying social and political aims (Selden, Steven, “Transforming Better Babies Into Fitter Families,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149.2, June 2005, 203).
It was in this atmosphere of blossoming enthusiasm that Sanger began to align the functionality of birth control with the ideology of biological determinism. In search of support from respectable professional groups, including eugenicists, Sanger highlighted how contraceptives could be used to pursue “the self direction of human evolution.”
“The Eugenic Tree,” American Philosophical Society, 1932
But, a result of Sanger’s alignment with certain dysgenic and eugenic principles is that her work continues to be challenged even today. Perhaps most deleterious to her character are modern assertions that Sanger was a “racist promoter of genocide.” While Sanger can be considered racist and classist to the extent that many people were during the twentieth century, it is erroneous to overextend that allegation and claim the activist was a proponent of race control (“The Eugenic Tree, Announcements of the Third International Eugenics Congress,” American Philosophical Society, 1932 and Katz, Esther, “The Editor as Public Authority: Interpreting Margaret Sanger,” The Public Historian 17.1, Winter 1995, 44).
Sanger, who aimed to enmesh dysgenics, eugenics, and contraception, was primarily interested in the “racial health” of the human race versus one particular race. What the birth control advocate sought was for contraception to act as a control for the passing of “injurious,” hereditary traits on to future generations. Commenting in 1934 on the German government’s sterilization program, Sanger distinguished which hereditary traits she viewed as injurious and which hereditary traits she did not wish to involve in her eugenic mission:
I admire the courage of a government that takes a stand on sterilization of the unfit and second, my admiration is subject to the interpretation of the word ‘unfit.’ If by ‘unfit’ is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, that is an admirable gesture, but if ‘unfit’ refers to races or religions, then that is another matter which I frankly deplore.
Sanger rejects race control, but her statement is troubling. Employing birth control and supporting forced sterilization to curtail the reproduction of those with mental or physical challenges causes even her most staunch supporters to raise an eyebrow (Sanger, “Margaret Sanger to Sidney L. Lasell, Jr.,” Feb. 13, 1934).
While unsettling to modern sensibilities, Sanger was not unique in her praise of forced sterilization. As early as 1907, the first compulsory sterilization law was passed in the United States. Specifically, the eugenicist statute passed in the state of Indiana applied to male “criminals, idiots, imbeciles, or rapists.” These groups—“criminals, idiots, imbeciles, or rapists”—coincided with Sanger’s understanding of the unfit. It is important to note that Sanger, along with other eugenicists, believed scientific studies that concluded that those with mental or physical challenges included criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. and that these groups were incapable of resisting their sexual urges. Her solution at the time, as was the state of Indiana’s solution in 1907, was sterilization. Sanger also considered gender segregation as a possible method for controlling the reproduction of the “unfit.” As science evolved its views, so did Sanger, and after the horrors of World War II, she significantly revised her views of forced sterilization (James B. O’Hara and Sanks, T. Howland, “Eugenic Sterilization,” The Georgetown Law Review 45, 1956, 22)
Beyond compulsory sterilization, Sanger’s alignment with dysgenics and eugenics materialized in her calls for the responsible breeding of the “fit” and the “unfit.” In Sanger’s eyes, “uncontrolled fertility [was] universally correlated with disease, poverty, overcrowding and the transmission of heritable taints”—in so many words, the proliferation of the “unfit.” As a result, she proposed “find[ing] effectual means of controlling & limiting the propagation of the mentally unfit, including feebleminded, psychotic & unstable, mentally retarded individuals.” Worth noting, Sanger specifically meant birth control, not abortion and never infanticide, when she spoke of controlling mentally and physically challenged populations. Her commitment to parents responsibly procreating, via the use of birth control when appropriate, long outlived her tryst with sterilization (Sanger, “The Limitations of Eugenics,” Typed speech, [Sept] 1921, Library of Congress Microfilm, LCM 130:0044 and Sanger, “[Birth Control and Controlling the Unfit Notes],” Autograph draft speech, , Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Sophia Smith Collection, S71:1050).
To summarize Sanger’s relationship with such heated terms as dysgenics and eugenics is a dangerous task. While she married her social mission to that of progressive eugenicists—primarily in an attempt to garner mainstream support for birth control—it is difficult to easily consolidate her beliefs on this complex issue. What we can deduce from the literature she has left behind is that claims of her racism are misguided to say the least and that her dysgenic aims were colorblind. We can also conclude that Sanger understood the eugenic value of contraception to lie in strengthening and empowering the human race. She believed that “the great responsibility of parenthood” was to help diminish the potential of biological weakness in all people, but such beliefs were tempered by the science and the biases of the day. Moreover, these statements are liable to over-simplify perspectives that were more complex in nature and should be taken as the less than exact overviews that they are. Ultimately, Sanger’s campaign for the eugenic benefits of birth control was a divergence from her core mission: that every woman be freed from the shackles of unwanted pregnancy (Sanger, “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda,” Birth Control Review, Oct. 1921, 5).