Margaret Sanger’s “Struggle for Justice”

by Emma Barrett

Across the country, statues have been vandalized, toppled, and destroyed. Following the death of George Floyd, many Americans have called for a reckoning of our nation’s racist past and a repudiation of historical figures associated with it. Mobs have responded to this call, tearing down statues of prominent Americans, including George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass. Amidst this call for justice, however, one woman has remained untouched, maintaining her position of honor in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. She is a woman who promoted eugenics, had close ties to the Ku Klux Klan, and professed a desire to “exterminate the Negro population.” And yet, her statue has survived the current frenzy, resting in an exhibit entitled “The Struggle for Justice.” 

It is true that Margaret Sanger was part of a struggle for justice, but she was on the wrong side of it. The National Portrait Gallery honors Margaret Sanger because she founded the American Birth Control League, the precursor to Planned Parenthood. What it doesn’t say is that one of the League’s central goals was to eliminate unwanted populations through means of birth control. The League itself was largely concerned with eliminating “the feeble-minded” and “mentally and physically defective” from society, but Sanger herself went much further in her support of eugenics. She pushed for America to exclude “undesirable” immigrants, namely those that would be “detrimental to the stamina of the race.” In one speech, “My Way to Peace,” she argued that unwanted populations–those with “tainted” and “objectionable” traits–should either undergo sterilization or be segregated from the general society. This unwanted population included the physically and mentally disabled, criminals, paupers, prostitutes, and unemployables. 

In practice, Sanger worked towards promoting what she saw as the “racial health” of America. “Negroes,” said a report Sanger co-authored, “present the great problem of the South,” as they “breed carelessly and disastrously” and hold the “greatest economic, health and social problems” of any population. She bemoaned the “racial chaos” present in America and created a birth control program that specifically targeted black neighborhoods. The majority of the clinics that Sanger established were in minority communities

While Sanger herself equated abortion with “disease, suffering, [and] death,” the organization she founded no longer shares these views. Planned Parenthood does, however, still target black and minority neighborhoods. It is not a coincidence that 79% of Planned Parenthood facilities are located within walking distance of minority neighborhoods. With 27.1 out of every 1000 pregnancies ending in abortion, black women have the highest abortion rate when compared to white, Hispanic, and other minority women. Since 1973, 19 million black babies have been killed. In 2016, more black babies were aborted than born in New York City

In 2016, Planned Parenthood released a statement that partly acknowledged Sanger’s past. It said that “Our founder, Margaret Sanger, was a woman of heroic accomplishments, and like all heroes, she was also complex and imperfect.” This, however, is not the standard to which any other figure in American history is currently being held. As more and more statues come down, it is an outrage to leave Sanger’s standing in the Smithsonian, right next to civil rights activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. If we are to truly affirm the dignity of every individual in America, without regard to ability, race, or sex, Sanger cannot stay in the position of honor and respect that she currently occupies.

Photo by Amy-Leigh Barnard on Unsplash