On learning of Planned Parenthood’s recent decision to remove founder Margaret Sanger’s name from its Greater Manhattan facility, I was angry.
Mind you, my reaction was such not because I support abortion, birth control, Planned Parenthood or Sanger herself, who five decades after her death has finally been called out in some form for her legacy of eugenics and racism.
No, far from that. I’m sure that had we been contemporaries, Sanger and I would have engaged in some heated exchanges regarding her claim that working women (including my Irish immigrant ancestors) should limit themselves to two children – because in her view, “sordid” large families only promoted poverty.
I don’t think I could have kept my voice lowered while this trained nurse tried to explain why, as she saw it, “the birth of diseased or defective children” should be prevented through “sound and sane birth control” – with her recommended methods including, as she wrote in her 1914 pamphlet “Family Limitation,” the regular use of corrosives such as mercury bichloride and the cleaning solution Lysol to prevent conception.
I most likely would have interrupted her 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, in which she described herself as “a born humanitarian,” while in the next breath declaring that “the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically.”
A warped belief in human perfectionism led Sanger to embrace the eugenics movement of the early 20th century — a scourge that had its roots in antiquity, raged under Hitler and continues to this day in the guise of “choice” and “reproductive rights.”
Regardless of the century, its goals have remained constant: to eliminate so-called “undesirable” elements from the population through birth control, abortion and forced sterilizations, targeting ethnic and racial minorities as well as persons with mental illness and various disabilities.
And that’s why I’m angry. How is it that only now, 54 years after her death, has Planned Parenthood taken any kind of concrete action to distance itself from a founder who – if they looked through their staff’s own genealogies – would likely have advised against its workers’ ancestors giving birth?
How could an organization established by a professed eugenicist smack in the middle of World War II have continued unchallenged for decades by its constituents, having witnessed Nazi Germany’s systemic, eugenics-driven massacre of at least 6 million men, women and children?
The answer, according to supporters of Planned Parenthood, is “complicated.”
Sanger’s views were “layered and complex,” stated a 2016 fact sheet issued by the company.
She was driven by a “passion to spread and mainstream birth control” when she spoke to a Ku Klux Klan women’s auxiliary in 1926, the same document noted, adding that Planned Parenthood “strongly disagrees with Sanger’s decision to address an organization that spreads hatred.”
She shouldn’t be classified as “all good or all bad,” said Planned Parenthood executive Merle McGee.
Given that Sanger wasn’t exactly evasive about her philosophy, those responses sound rather tentative, especially at a time when historical interpretation has become, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
While Sanger has leniently been accorded a minor penalty by abortion proponents, other historical figures, such as St. Junipero Serra, have been denounced and swiftly excised from our chronicles, and with far less documentation or justification – or even basic knowledge of the facts.
Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan priest who founded the California mission system, was also (as Sanger apologists are quick to say of their own) a “person of his time.” In his case, that meant “(trying) to proclaim the Gospel in an era of colonization,” according to Serra researcher and archdiocesan priest Father Matt Guckin.
Church and state weren’t always in lockstep; neither were theologians, who regularly endorsed both corporal punishment and austere self-mortification, and it’s not clear whether Serra and his fellow missionaries were fully aware of the risk of infection they posed to Indigenous populations with no immunity against diseases like smallpox.
Even Sherburne F. Cook, a noted Serra detractor, concluded after his research that the missions were in practice “much closer to socialism or communism, in the Marxian sense, than slavery.”
But for trying to affirm, however imperfectly at times, the image and likeness of God in those to whom he ministered, Serra is demonized — while Sanger, who dedicated her life to preventing the birth of children while ravaging the female reproductive system with toxins, is considered dimensional, nuanced and still relevant.
Such a double standard ultimately results in the very kind of selectivity that shaped Sanger’s worldview, a dismal one in which “ignorant” workers, absent her zealous intervention, would “(bring) children in the world to fill jails and hospitals, factories and mills, insane asylums and premature graves.”
And in its worst form, it leads us to the gates of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and the many places on this earth where human life has been deemed expendable – and to the very portals of hell itself, unless we open our eyes and our hearts to the truth.
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