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Margaret Sanger: The Other Side of the Story

6 years ago
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Editor's note: Earlier this month, I posted a piece about the astonishing turn of phrase uttered by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a recent interview. Justice Ginsburg stated flatly that reducing the birthrate among certain populations had been a motivating rationale for early proponents of legalized abortion. Carl Cannon weighed in on July 22 with a historically based article showing that eugenics did indeed play a pivotal role in the thinking of early birth-control advocates, including Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Walter Shapiro of our staff then suggested that we solicit a different viewpoint from Ellen Chesler, a lecturer at the City University of New York, where she directs the Eleanor Roosevelt Initiative on Women and Public Policy. Dr. Chesler is also the author of "Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America." To me, Walter's idea perfectly encapsulates the philosophy of Politics Daily: multiple viewpoints, expressed in a civil and thoughtful manner. In keeping with that ethic, Carl reached out to Ellen, and here is her essay in response. – Melinda Henneberger

Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger went to jail in 1917 for distributing simple contraceptives to immigrant women from a makeshift clinic in a tenement storefront in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. When she died nearly 50 years later, the cause for which she defiantly broke the law had achieved international stature, and she was widely eulogized as one of the great emancipators of her time.

A visionary thinker, relentless agitator and gifted organizer, Sanger lived just long enough to savor the historic 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which established privacy protection as a framework for legalizing basic reproductive rights. Elderly and frail, Sanger watched Lyndon Johnson finally incorporate family planning into U.S. public welfare and foreign policy programs. She saw the birth control pill developed and marketed by a team of doctors and scientists she had long encouraged and found the money to support. She saw a global family planning movement descend from her own international efforts.
The years since have not been as good to Sanger's reputation, even as they have witnessed measurable progress for women in achieving reproductive freedom. This essay is offered in defense of Margaret Sanger, whose fundamental contribution to society was in claiming every woman's right to experience her sexuality freely and bear only the number of children she desires. Following in the footsteps of a first generation of educated women who had proudly forgone marriage in order to seek fulfillment outside the home, she offered birth control as a necessary condition to the resolution of a broader range of personal and professional satisfactions. The hardest challenge in introducing her to modern audiences, for whom this claim has become routine, is to explain how absolutely destabilizing it seemed in her own time.

Even with so much lingering animus toward changes in women's lives around the world, it is difficult to inhabit an era in our own history when sexuality was considered more an obligation of women than an experience from which to derive contentment, let alone pleasure. Well into Sanger's own time, motherhood was accepted as a woman's principal purpose and primary role. It is even harder to fathom that American women just a century ago were still largely denied identities or rights of their own, independent of those they enjoyed by virtue of their relationships with men, and that this principle was central to the enduring opposition they encountered in seeking access to full rights of inheritance and property, to suffrage, and most especially to birth control. This unyielding principle of male "coverture" defined women's legal identities even with respect to physical abuse in the family, which the U.S. Supreme Court condoned in 1910, denying damages to a wife injured by violent beatings on the grounds that to do so would undermine the peace of the household.

Re-examining this history in the context of the recent expansion of civil and human rights to incorporate women's rights underscores Sanger's originality as a feminist theorist who first demanded civil protection of women's claims to reproductive liberty and bodily integrity, in and outside of marriage. As a result of private arrangements and a healthy trade in condoms, douches and various contraptions sold largely under the subterfuge of feminine hygiene, the country's birthrate began to decline long before she came on the scene. But it was she who invented "birth control" as a comfortable, popular term of speech, and in so doing gave the practice essential public and political currency.

It was Margaret Sanger who first recognized the far-reaching consequences of bringing sexuality and contraception into the open, and claiming them as fundamental women's rights. She won legal protection for birth control, and by winning scientific validation for specific contraceptive practices, she also helped lift the religious shroud that had long encased reproduction in myth and mystery, thereby securing medical and social science institutions – as much as houses of worship – as arbiters of sexual behavior and values.

And from this accomplishment, which many still consider heretical, a continuing controversy has ensued. When Sanger opened her clinic and deliberately staged an arrest in 1916, she challenged anachronistic obscenity laws that remained on the books as the legacy of the notorious anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock. His evangelical fervor had captured late-19th century Victorian politics and led to the adoption by the states and federal government of broad criminal sanctions on sexual speech and commerce, including all materials related to contraception and abortion. Her critique, however, was not just of legal constraints on obscenity, but also of legal constraints on women's place. In this respect, she also helped inaugurate a modern women's rights movement that moves beyond traditional civil and political claims of liberty to embrace social and cultural ones. She understood that to advance women's rights it is necessary to address -- and the state has an obligation to protect -- personal as well as public spheres of conduct.

What is a good deal harder to deconstruct and understand is Sanger's engagement with eugenics during these years, the then-still popular intellectual movement that addressed the manner in which biology and heredity affect human intelligence and ability. Like many well-intentioned secularists and social reformers of her day, Sanger took away from Charles Darwin the essentially optimistic lesson that men and women's common ancestry in the animal kingdom makes us all capable of improvement, if only we apply the right tools. Eugenics, in the view of most prominent progressive thinkers of that era, from university presidents, to physicians and scientists, to public officials, held the promise that merit would replace birthright and social status as the standard for mobility in a democratic society.

In this respect, the most enduring bequest of eugenics is standard IQ testing. Its most damning legacy is a series of draconian state laws regarding sterilization that were upheld by the Supreme Court, including its progressive wing. The most notorious of these decisions was the 1927 Buck v. Bell. In that case, an 8-1 majority of the court, led by Chief Justice William H. Taft and famed Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (who wrote the opinion) and Louis Brandeis, upheld a Virginia statute authorizing the compulsory sterilization of a poor young white woman with an illegitimate child on grounds of feeble-mindedness that were never clearly established. This decision, incidentally, was also endorsed by civil libertarians such as Roger Baldwin and civil rights advocates, including W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP, both of whom Sanger counted among her supporters and friends.

Nonetheless, Sanger did on occasion engage in shrill rhetoric about the growing burden of large families among individuals of low intelligence and defective heredity. Her language had no intended racial, ethnic or class content. She argued that all women, no matter where they are situated, should be encouraged to bear fewer, healthier children, but her words have since been lifted out of context and misquoted to provoke exactly the kind of intolerance she opposed. Moreover, in endorsing the Supreme Court's rulings about compulsory sterilization, and also on several occasions the payment of pensions or bonuses to women of low intelligence who would with this inducement agree to the procedure, Sanger clearly failed to consider the fundamental rights questions raised by such practices or the validity of the aptitude assessments on which determinations of low intelligence were based.

The challenge for historians has been to reconcile these apparent contradictions in her views. Sanger was actually an unusually advanced thinker on race for her day, one who condemned discrimination and encouraged reconciliation between blacks and whites.

She opened an integrated clinic in Harlem in the early 1930s and then facilitated birth control and maternal health programs for rural black women in the South, when local white health officials denied them access to the New Deal's first federally funded services. She worked on this project with the behind-the-scenes support of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose progressive views on race were well known but whose support for birth control was silenced by her husband's Catholic political handlers -- at least until he was safely ensconced in the White House for a third term.

Historically specific circumstances of this complexity, however, are hard to untangle and convey, and this in large part explains why Sanger's legacy has been so easily distorted by contemporary abortion opponents, who believe they can advance their own ideological and political agendas by undermining her motives and her character. America's intensely complicated politics of reproduction ensnarled Sanger and many who came after her. Birth control has fundamentally altered private and public life over the past century. No other issue has for so long captivated our attention or polarized our thinking. As the psychologist Erik Erikson once suggested, no idea of modern times, save perhaps for arms control, more directly challenges human destiny, which alone may account for the profound social conflict it tends to inspire.

As many scholars of the subject in recent years have also observed, much of the controversy around birth control proceeds as well from the plain fact that reproduction is, by its very nature, experienced individually and socially at the same time. In claiming every woman's fundamental right to control her own body, Sanger always remained mindful of the dense fabric of cultural, political and economic relationships in which those rights are exercised. And almost, if obviously not always, the policies she advocated were intended to facilitate the necessary obligation of public policy to balance individual rights of self-expression with the sometimes contrary social and political obligation to promulgate and enforce common mores, rule and laws.

That Margaret Sanger failed to get this balance quite right in one important respect is certainly worthy of respectful disagreement and commentary, but it is no reason to poison her reputation or to abandon the noble cause of reproductive freedom to which she so courageously and indefatigably dedicated her life.

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