I admit I took it a bit personally when Planned Parenthood of Greater New York took the name of the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger, off its flagship clinic in Manhattan in July. It will now be called Manhattan Health Center. What am I supposed to do now with the two Planned Parenthood Maggie Awards I’ve won for articles on reproductive rights? Life comes at you fast. Some news reports made it sound as if the change was related to internal struggles over racism; staffers of color have complained that they were disrespected and passed over for promotion, and around the time that Sanger’s name was removed, Laura McQuade, the CEO of the New York affiliate, was fired amid accusations of racism. These were legitimate concerns. Of the 22 members of the PPGNY board, according to The New York Times, only one is Black. (Two are Asian, and two are Hispanic.) Especially given that Black women make up a large proportion of Planned Parenthood patients, that’s pretty shocking.
Whether erasing Sanger was an olive branch to Black staffers or part of a deeper self-investigation, there’s no question that the main winners here are abortion opponents. For decades, they’ve claimed that Sanger was a racist bent on Black genocide and that Planned Parenthood is carrying out that mission today. In 2016, Planned Parenthood released a historically accurate, fair, and complex statement refuting that absurd claim, but why would anyone pay attention to that now?
Never mind that the anti-choice movement has never done a thing for Black people and, like Sanger’s old enemy the Catholic hierarchy, is closely allied with racist institutions like the Republican Party and white evangelical Protestantism. The bogus anti-racism of the self-described pro-life movement was on full display in 2011, when billboards appeared picturing an adorable Black child with the caption “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” In other words: The biggest danger to Black people is pregnant Black women. It is truly painful that this canard about Sanger has now been given a stamp of approval by the very organization she founded.
For the record, Margaret Sanger was not a racist, as PPGNY board chairman Karen Seltzer asserts. As her biographer Ellen Chesler told me, she was a progressive who believed in racial integration. She voted for Norman Thomas. She worked with progressive Black people—W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, who along with Mary McCleod Bethune and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. served on the board of the Negro Project, a network of birth control and maternal health clinics Sanger established in Harlem and the South. In 1966, Martin Luther King accepted Planned Parenthood’s first Margaret Sanger Award, and in his statement offered a vigorous endorsement of voluntary birth control.
Although she did not single out Black people, Sanger was, yes, a eugenicist. She thought people, especially poor people, often had too many kids to care for properly and that too many of those kids were born physically disabled (or in the language of the day, “feeble-minded”). She did not oppose forced sterilization.
In these views, she had a lot of company. Many intellectuals in the early 20th century—left, right, and center—went even further. That is, they traced social ills like crime and poverty to there being too many of the wrong sort of people, a calamity that modern society, through science and social control, could prevent. Because of the Nazis, we think of eugenics as based on racism and pseudoscientific notions of breeding a racial genetic elite, but it was more about ableism, based on the belief that poverty, crime, prostitution, and promiscuity were the result of inferior genes.
Avowed socialists like H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and even Helen Keller were eugenicists. So were liberal reformers like Havelock Ellis and John Maynard Keynes and traditionalists like Winston Churchill. Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, the architects of the Swedish welfare state (she was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, too), supported measures to help mothers and children, but they also enthusiastically supported sterilization of the “unfit.” Buck v. Bell, the infamous Supreme Court decision that validated forced sterilization, was written by one liberal hero, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and approved by another, Louis Brandeis. As Chesler tartly observed, Sanger’s name is more closely associated with this case than the men who decided it. Nobody is demanding that Brandeis University change its name.
But who knows? Maybe that will happen. At least for now, we seem uninterested in context or history or in weighing the bad with the good. The current wave of name changes and erasures and pulling down of statues doesn’t leave much room for nuance, and maybe that’s inevitable in this astonishing transformative moment. Still, it’s one thing to get rid of Confederate monuments or for Yale to change the name of its Calhoun College. Confederates were traitors. Calhoun was a terrible person who did nothing but harm. It’s another thing to read an entire heroic life through the lens of one fault. There won’t be many heroes left if we do that.
I’ll just come right out and say it: Margaret Sanger did more good for American women than any other individual in the entire 20th century. She is the person who connected birth control not just to women’s health—something the Catholic Church has yet to grasp, although it controls one in seven US hospital beds—but also to our self-determination and sexual freedom. She was the key leader who really grasped the fact that without the ability to control our own bodies, women would never be free or equal or even just happy and well. She was more than a writer, an activist, a health provider, and an organizer, though she was all those things. She was a whirlwind of energy who changed our understanding of womanhood, sex, and marriage so fundamentally, we can barely picture what life was like before her.
There are so many ways of forgetting where we have been. Planned Parenthood has just made doing so a little easier.