Newsletter #16 (Fall 1997)
The Demonization of Margaret Sanger
On May 5, 1997, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial piece titled "The Repackaging of Margaret Sanger," by Steven Mosher, vice president for international affairs of Human Life International, an anti-abortion group based in Front Royal, Virginia. Mosher objected to a Planned Parenthood award named for Margaret Sanger that was given to "The Dying Rooms," a BBC documentary on China's state-run orphanages. While Mosher praised the documentary (in which he appeared), he was "personally offended" that the award bore the name Margaret Sanger, someone he claimed had "contempt for the Asiatic races." He went on to attack Sanger for what he called her "bigotry," "racist views," and her associations with eugenicists. In doing so, he misappropriated several Sanger quotations, highlighted seemingly inflammatory Sanger comments without providing any context, and indicted her for the words and deeds of several prominent eugenicists who supported birth control.
The Mosher piece is typical of many anti-Sanger letters-to-the-editor written by representatives of anti-choice groups that have appeared over the past few years whenever Sanger is mentioned in the context of an article on Planned Parenthood or contraception. In fact, the Mosher piece and many others like it borrow freely from anti-Sanger materials that have been in circulation for at least twenty years, including an offensive little pamphlet entitled Margaret Sanger: Father of Modern Society written by Elasah Drogin. The pamphlet, written in 1979, "exposes" Sanger as a eugenicist, racist and war-monger, but is most intent on proving her a sexual maniac with insatiable desires. It displays a portrait of Sanger on its cover, her head rising up above a modern metropolis, war planes swirling above her and a Nazi prison camp in the foreground. While this is one of the more absurd examples of anti-Sanger material in circulation, the Drogin pamphlet and most other attacks from anti-choice groups rely on the same small group of Sanger documents over and over again, including letters she wrote in the late 1930s to birth control movement contributors and black leaders expressing her concern that blacks living in the South would view her "Negro Project" as an attempt to limit their race. For instance she wrote to philanthropist Clarence Gamble in 1939:
The ministers work is also important and also he should be trained, perhaps by the [Birth Control] Federation [of America] as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. 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. (MS to Clarence Gamble, MSM S17:574).
Anti-choice groups attempting to discredit Sanger frequently extract the line "we don't want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population" without offering context or intelligent explanation.
Such written attacks on Sanger often fail to divulge the author's identity and real agenda. In the case of the Wall Street Journal piece readers are not told that Mosher is part of an extremely conservative Roman Catholic organization that not only opposes abortion and the work of PPFA, but strongly opposes contraception as well. Human Life International accepts only "natural" family planning, the "one [method] worthy of the dignity of man," according to an article on the organization's web page (see www.hli.org). It is clear from this Internet site that HLI's goal is to undermine the PPFA and international family planning, by attacking Sanger, who it portrays as the ideological foundation of the pro-choice and family planning movements.
The Margaret Sanger Papers Project has chosen not to respond to most such attacks against Sanger, even when they misuse or ignore the documentary record, as it is nearly impossible to offer point-by-point corrections and clarifications to the countless misquotations and misrepresentations of the historical record that appear in newspaper articles around the country.
In this instance, MSPP editor and director Esther Katz thought it necessary to respond to the Wall Street Journal because of the prestige and large circulation of the paper. She based her response on a close reading of the documents in question, offering more complete extractions of Sanger's writings. "The textual evidence reveals," she wrote, "that Sanger did not rationalize her support for birth control on racist grounds, that she never advocated genocidal policies aimed at racial, ethnic or religious groups, and that she, in fact, believed access to birth control would benefit, not eliminate minority populations."
Alexander Sanger, the president of Planned Parenthood of New York City, Sanger's grandson and member of the MSPP advisory board, also sent a reply to the Journal, emphasizing Sanger's commitment to helping all women "regardless of race or nationality," and highlighting her egalitarian language and phrases such as "Let every child be a wanted child."
The frequent misuse of historical resources on Sanger is further evidence for the need to provide a complete, accurate and accessible edition of her papers. There is certainly a credible, well-researched body of scholarship that argues persuasively that Sanger naively or carelessly accepted too much of the racist and nativist rhetoric that characterized early twentieth century eugenics. These writings are the product of good faith efforts that rely on the proper use of historical resources and a comprehensive understanding of Sanger's life. They further a valuable ongoing discussion about a highly controversial figure. Sanger's writings should be the subject of intelligent debate rather than an opportunity for preconceived distortion.
As Dr. Katz noted in her published response, "I certainly do not challenge Mr. Mosher's right to hold any view he wants on the issue of abortion or population control, but as a historian I take issue with his gross misuse of historical sources to support those views."