Margaret Sanger Was Against Abortion?

A few days ago I was speaking with a good friend of mine about Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League, which was renamed Planned Parenthood. The conversation shifted to Sanger as my friend, who is pro-choice, and I debated the issue of abortion. Sanger was quite relevant because we’re both African American and the founder of Planned Parenthood was, as is often pointed out by the right-to-life movement, an unequivocal white supremacist who saw eugenics as the means to weed out less “desirable” populations.

I forwarded my friend information about Sanger and the woman’s own words about a variety of matters. That is not why I’m writing this, however. Certain statements by Sanger are absolutely striking because they were statements I did not expect.

Statements such as this, found in a letter about the “Negro Project” were well expected:

We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.[1]

Or this, in a written statement to a congressional department:

Keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.

Apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.[2]

She also wrote:

It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization. For upon the foundation of an enlightened and voluntary motherhood shall a future civilization emerge.[3]

Despite this, I’ve read Sanger opposed many methods advocated by other negative eugenicists, including euthanasia. This opposition was not on moral grounds, but on an ideological one. It was her view that birth control alone was sufficient to empower strong and knowledgeable women to produce “fit” children and it was unacceptable to have any eugenics project that put power in the hands of anyone other than those who actually give birth.

She said of this:

The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics…. We are convinced that racial regeneration, like individual regeneration, must come ‘from within.’ That is, it must be autonomous, self-directive, and not imposed from without.[4]

… a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother… Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment.[5]

This is almost verbatim pro-choice rhetoric about the absolute autonomy of women and their absolute right to choice in reproductive matters. Her commitment to the power of eugenics being in the hands of women was so non-negotiable, Sanger is on record opposing the violent eugenics of Nazi Germany.

But what struck me most were here moral statements. First, she addressed masturbation and her comments were based on her experience as a nurse.

In my experience as a trained nurse while attending persons afflicted with various and often revolting diseases, no matter what their ailments, I have never found any one so repulsive as the chronic masturbator. It would be difficult not to fill page upon page of heartrending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently, for even after they have ceased the habit, they find themselves incapable of any relief in the natural act. […] Perhaps the greatest physical danger to the chronic masturbator is the inability to perform the sexual act naturally.

In the boy or girl past puberty, we find one of the most dangerous forms of masturbation, i.e., mental masturbation, which consists of forming mental pictures, or thinking obscene or voluptuous pictures. This form is considered especially harmful to the brain, for the habit becomes so fixed that it is almost impossible to free the thoughts from lustful pictures.[6]

Then, the most inexplicable statement of all was this:

“While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.[7]

In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger notes that her 1916 opposition to abortion was based on the taking of life:

“To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.”[8]

So Planned Parenthood honors this woman, an unequivocal racist and eugenicist, as a trailblazer and hero of women, particularly poor and ethnic women, and the most noteworthy socio-political cause they champion [abortion], she opposed? The irony, if she did in fact oppose abortion.

[1] Margaret Sanger’s December 19, 1939 letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble, 255 Adams Street, Milton, Massachusetts

[2] Sanger, “A Plan For Peace”, Birth Control Review, April 1932, p. 106

[3] Sanger, What Every Boy and Girl Should Know, 1915, p. 140

[4] Margaret Sanger. “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda.” Birth Control Review, October 1921, p.5

[5] Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control and Racial Betterment.” The Birth Control Review, 3(2), p. 11-12

[6] Margaret Sanger, “What Every Girl Should Know”, 1920, pp. 39-40

[7] Margaret Sanger (1920). “Contraceptives or Abortion?“. Woman and the New Race.

[8] Sanger, Margaret (1938). Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 217.

11 Responses to Margaret Sanger Was Against Abortion?

  1. Donna V. says:

    Sanger’s great cause was strengthening the master race and weeding out the undesirables. And remember that in the early part of the 20th century the master race did not include the people coming off the boats at Ellis Island. It sounds to me that she opposed masturbation, not for the reasons the Church does, but because she saw it as enfeebling said master race. I think that view was by no means unusual among Social Darwinists.

    That said, the statement about abortion is surprising and I am sure it will not ever grace the walls of any PP clinic.

    Here’s a link to an article about Lorraine Hansberry’s great play “A Raisin in the Sun.” You might find interesting, although it is written by GOP Congressman Fortenberry(I know absolutely nothing about the man). Needless to say, he is damned in the comments section as a white Republican male who has no business commenting on the black abortion rate. But it has been many years since I saw that shattering play and I had forgotten about the character Lena Younger’s pro-life stand: a powerful rebuke to the Margaret Sangers of the world.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood were against abortion. If they had not been prior to the Sixties, advocacy of abortion would have shut them out of any possibility of having any influence on public opinion or with the government. The only pro-aborts prior to the Sixties were the predatory males who helped procure them and the despised abortionists. Condemnation of abortion was as universal then as condemnation of cannibalism is now. It is worrisome as to how public opinion changed on such a key moral issue in one decade.

  3. Elaine Krewer says:

    Since Margaret Sanger has been dead for more than four decades, it may be very difficult if not impossible to determine whether her opposition to abortion was sincere or merely pragmatic (i.e. based on a desire not to alienate the general public), if it was based on actual moral conviction that killing an unborn baby was wrong, or simply on concerns for the medical risks involved to the woman.

    Also, there is some question as to whether her comments on the Negro Project indicated a genuine, deliberate plan to “exterminate the Negro population” or simply expressed concern that the project would be PERCEIVED as such in the black community. Again, we may never know for sure.

    I would say that most people’s convictions — particularly about matters as personal as sexuality and race — don’t always fit neatly into boxes and often include apparently contradictory “liberal” and “conservative” ideas. Margaret Sanger seems to have been no exception.

  4. Dale Price says:

    A little more grist for the mill, from a 2003 review of one volume of her writings in the Weekly Standard:

    One final misconception about Mrs. Sanger must also be addressed, it seems, and in this case the truth will terribly inconvenience the propaganda efforts all around. It is not right, pace Planned Parenthood, that Margaret Sanger declined to advocate abortion But on grounds that it was then a dangerous and illegal surgery. “There are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician,” she wrote in 1920, and “we know that abortion, when performed by skilled hands, under right conditions, brings almost no danger to the life of the patient.” On the evidence in “The Woman Rebel,” the real reason Sanger declined to advocate abortion, notwithstanding the law’s flexibility and what she took to be the procedure’s safety, is that abortion appalled her.

    She turned women seeking abortions away from her clinics: “I do not approve of abortion.” She called it “sordid,” “abhorrent,” “terrible,” “barbaric,” a “horror.” She called abortionists “blood-sucking men with MD after their names who perform operations for the price of so-and-so.” She called the results of abortion “an outrageous slaughter,” “infanticide,” “foeticide,” and “the killing of babies.” And Margaret Sanger, who knew a thing or two about contraception, said that birth control “has nothing to do with abortion, it has nothing to do with interfering with or disturbing life after conception has taken place.” Birth control stands alone: “It is the first, last, and final step we all are to take to have real human emancipation.”

  5. […] Sanger actually thought of abortion? may, however, come as a surprise. Comments […]

  6. One of Sanger’s colleagues and contributors to her magazine once contended:

    Are Catholic stocks . . . genetically inferior to such non-Catholic libertarian stocks and Unitarians and Universal . . . Freethinkers? Inferior to non-Catholics in general? . . . my guess is that the answer will someday be made in the affirmative. . . and if the supposed differentials in net productivity are also genuine, the situation is anti-social, perhaps gravely so.

    At that time Catholic voters composed the principle obstruction to her plans. Were it still so today!

  7. cminor says:

    While I couldn’t say what may have been going through Sanger’s mind regarding abortion, I think it is noteworthy that, from the late 19th century until the 60’s or 70’s the humanity of the fetus was accepted and taught in medical and nursing schools. The concept of abortion was abhorrent to doctors and nurses who held their vocations in any honor, and not just because the procedure could be risky to the mother or because it was often a cover-up for illicit sex. If she accepted the basic scientific premise that each conception was a new human being, that can’t have been an easy thing to shake off.

  8. Rapnsum says:

    Sanger supported eugenics. Several American Birth Control League board members formed the group: National Society for the Legalization of Euthanasia as early as 1938. Many of that group’s founders were Sanger Board Members and joint members of the Eugenics Society, a group Planned Parenthood Founder , Margaret Sanger , belonged to as well. ( SEE NYT “Sanction is sought for ‘mercy deaths” 1/17/1938). Read Sanger;s writings for yourself here: , and don’t skip past her autobiography where she brags that she received a dozen invites to speak to the Klan. Sanger did admit that Life Begins At Conception – something Planned Parenthood refuses to admit today. She said that anything that stops conception was an abortion and today Plan B does that, and Planned Parenthood calls Plan B non-abortive ! Sanger and her eugenic friends thought they would be able to forcefully sterilize all they deemed “unfit” thus the reason they originally despised abortion. But- when the laws worked against them in that effort- suddenly abortion was a solution. And legal abortion was the answer they sought for so many years because it has proved to eliminate more Blacks than all other diseases combined. You must see a new film: MAAFA21. The documentation in that DVD will knock your socks off and convince even the skeptic that abortion and Black Genocide are an evil racist plot. check it out:

  9. K says:

    I’m just trying to do some research, this is the only site I’ve found so far mentioning that Margaret Sanger was African-American. The picture I see are most definetely a white women. Where can I find the information contradictory to that? Thank You for your insite.

  10. Mike Petrik says:

    While perhaps imprecisely phrased, I took Eric to mean that he and a fellow African-American were discussing Ms. Sanger.

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