Life Sunday Stuff — Margaret Sanger Conclusion

MargaretSanger-Underwood.LOCPart I     Part II

In September 1915, Sanger returned to America and began working again on publishing a new journal titled, Birth Control Review. At that time, she also opened the first reproductive clinic in Brooklyn, New York. She was imprisoned, along with her sister, for opening the clinic and distributing contraceptive propaganda. After her release, she began publishing Birth Control Review and recruiting the upper ranks of society to join the eugenic and birth control causes.

Three tracts, written between the years 1918 and 1926, shed light on Sanger’s eugenic tendencies. The first tract is, “When Should A Woman Avoid Having Children,” written in November 1918. Sanger listed five main reasons why women should avoid pregnancy. The fourth reason is, “No more children should be born when the parents, though healthy themselves, find that their children are physically or mentally defective.”[1] Sanger went on to defend this statement by explaining that no matter how much the parents desired to have children,

No man and woman have a right to bring into the world those who are sure to suffer from mental or physical affliction. It condemns the child to a life of misery and places upon the community the burden of caring for them, probably of their defective descendants for many generations.[2]

At first glance, this is nothing about which to be alarmed. Sanger lists many reasons when a woman should avoid being pregnant, such as youth and health difficulties. These are innocent purposes and encouragements. However, one phrase that causes trouble is, “places upon the community the burden of caring for them.” This was an issue with the eugenicists. The mentally or physically afflicted caused a burden upon society that otherwise could be prevented through birth control. This would allow the better fit to thrive.

The view that if the unfit or afflicted prevented a progressive society was amplified in Sanger’s article, “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” written in February 1919.  Sanger opened the article by stating that before eugenicists can succeed with racial betterment, they must, “First clear the way for Birth Control.”[3] Sanger emphasized this necessity because she believed that eugenicists and advocates for birth control both had the same goal, the removal of the unfit from society.[4] She saw herself working with eugenicists toward the elimination of the weak in order that the strong could thrive in society.  Sanger sought, in line with the eugenicists, to purge society of certain individuals that they deemed detrimental to the progression of civilization.  This clarifies her statements earlier in, “When a Woman Should Avoid Having Children.”

Sanger continued in this tract to summarize that the eugenicist’s emphasis is the mating of healthy couples and the sterilization of the unfit. Sanger would contrast this with the birth control view that, along with the sterilization of the unfit, they emphasize stopping, “All reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health.”[5]  Sanger clarified this distinction because the world is already overpopulated and there are limited resources for those already born. This is clearly an influence from her studies of Malthus and her time spent with the Neo-Malthusian League members. Sanger did not endorse positive eugenics (increased procreation rate), but negative eugenics (limited procreation for the sake of those already born).

Sanger does not disagree that one of the means of birth control is to stop the reproduction of the unfit. This raises the question concerning the definition of, “unfit.” Sanger defines this later in the tract concerning the sterilization of the unfit that she personally believes:

 In the sterilization of the feeble-minded, the insane and the syphilitic, I have not been able to discover that these measures are more than superficial deterrents when applied to the constantly growing stream of the unfit.[6]

Sanger concluded this tract by stressing the fact that eugenics, if it is to continue and thrive, must rely on birth control. Sanger compared eugenics without birth control to a house built on the sand because it is, “At the mercy of the rising stream of the unfit.” Eugenics could not survive as a philosophy, or as an ideal. It had to have a concrete tool to feed its ideology and, therefore, its practicality. Sanger endorsed birth control as the fuel to feed the fire of eugenics because a “free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment.”[7]

This closing statement hearkens back to Chesler’s assertion that Ellis influenced Sanger in that women were the enforcers of a more prudent and better world. A better world, in terms of eugenics and birth control, is a world that allows the healthy and fit to have a better life, without the cares or burdens of the unfit. Sanger observes and emphasizes birth control as a steady means by which the population can be controlled and therefore better fit in this world. After reading this article, it is evident that Sanger asserts that a woman who practices birth control can better manage her economic, housing, and physical well-being. This article reveals the close relationship between eugenics and birth control and Sanger’s belief that they serve a common purpose.

The third writing is an excerpt from, “Racial Betterment,” written in August 1926. This is an excerpt from a speech that Sanger gave to the Vassar College Institute of Euthenics.  Sanger opened the speech saying, “There are two problems now confronting civilization. The pressure of population on the food supply of the world, and the reconciliation of humanitarian practices with race betterment.”[8]

Sanger did not address the issue of food supply, but instead asserted the necessity for the American government to implement programs that would educate society about the need for birth control. After explaining the country’s stance on immigration and how the government keeps out the undesirables, she noted that it is deplorable how there is no, “attempt to discourage or cut down on the rapid multiplication of the unfit and undesirable at home.”[9]  Sanger addressed that the issue of birth control’s illegal status leads to the American public being, “taxed, heavily taxed, to maintain an increasing race of morons, which threatens the very foundations of our civilization.”[10]

 Sanger emphasized that the need to eliminate the feeble-minded was a foregone conclusion if society desired to be healthy. Sanger concluded her speech with the bold words that if a country desired a higher birth rate among the intelligent, there is only one reply, which is to, “ask the government to FIRST take off the burdens of the insane and feebleminded from your backs. Sterilization for these is the remedy.”[11]

Sanger was an advocate for birth control in America and around the world. In her pursuit to legalize both the distribution of contraceptives and the education of the masses concerning reproductive health, Sanger found herself with many diverse friendships around the world. However, the eugenicists remained friends for the remainder of her life after her return from England.

In the book, Birth Control in America: The Career Of Margaret Sanger, David Kennedy observes the relationship between Sanger and the eugenicists as an effective relationship. He asserts that Sanger:

 Had first embraced eugenic rhetoric as just another addition to her grab-bag of arguments for contraception. Soon, however, eugenics dominated birth control propaganda and underscored the conversion of the birth control movement from a radical program of social disruption to a conservative program of social control.[12]

There is a clear shift in Sanger’s rhetoric after her exile in England. Upon returning to America, she began using eugenic terminology and arguments to advocate the legalization for birth control for the sake of the nation and women everywhere. One must ask the question, “Did Sanger use eugenics to broaden her horizons and widen her audience, or did she agree with the tenets of eugenic ideology?”  Sanger herself answers this question in her autobiography, which she wrote and was first published in 1938. Sanger asserted that she, “accepted one branch of this philosophy, but eugenics without birth control seemed to me a house built upon sands.” Sanger criticized the eugenicists because they wanted to “shift the birth control emphasis from less children for the poor to more children for the rich.” Sanger argued against this because her priority was first to stop the multiplication of the unfit. This appeared to Sanger as the “most important and greatest step towards race betterment.”[13]

It is impossible for one to read into the conscience of Sanger or to comprehend her motives. She must not be made into an anachronism, nor should religious or secular biases interpret her language. Sanger’s works and words must determine the answer to the eugenic question. Was Margaret Sanger a eugenicist?  What is known is that Sanger did use eugenic arguments and rhetoric in order to further the cause of birth control in America. What is probable, after review of the materials, is that she learned these eugenic debates while in England in 1914-1915. Sanger did not use eugenic arguments to further her own cause, but agreed with the negative practice of eugenics, as is read in her own words, in order to continue her cause of race betterment. England was a turning point for Sanger and a determinant for her continued fight for the legalization of birth control in America.


[1] Margaret Sanger, “When Should A Woman Avoid Having Children,” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1 The Woman Rebel 1900-1928, ed. Esther Katz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 243.

[2] Ibid, 243.

[3] Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control and Racial Beterment,” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1 The Woman Rebel 1900-1928, ed. Esther Katz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 252.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 252.

[6] Ibid, 253.

[7] Ibid, 254.

[8] Margaret Sanger, “Excerpt from Racial Betterment,” in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 1 The Woman Rebel 1900-1928, ed. Esther Katz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 445.

[9] Ibid, 446.

[10] Ibid, 446.

[11] Ibid, 447.

[12] David M. Kennedy, Birth Control In America: The Career Of Margaret Sanger (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 121.

[13] Margaret Sanger : An Autobiography(New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971), 374-375.

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