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How Margaret Sanger Planned Parenthood by Abortion & Infanticide
by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
I saw a sickly baby in the arms of a terrified woman whose drunken husband had thrown the wailing, naked infant into the snow,” wrote Margaret Sanger in My Fight for Birth Control, published in 1931. “I remember having keen sympathy with that man!” The mother had given birth to eleven children, six of them still living, and this last one, who “evidently had eczema” and “whined night and day,” was just “too much for the father’s nerves.” And so, “out of the door into the snow the nuisance went!”
Her readers would not have been surprised. In Woman and the New Race, published in 1920, the founder of Planned Parenthood declared, “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”
While today she is widely known, and treated as a secular saint, for her fight to legalize contraception, Sanger is not as well known, and in secular and pro-choice circles never criticized, for her ardent efforts to justify abortion and infanticide.
In fact, Sanger envisioned an “evolution” from one to the other: “I sought to show the evolution of birth control from infanticide, through abortion, to modern methods of scientific and harmless prevention,” as she put it in My Fight. But there was a problem with this evolutionary scheme: For contraception to replace infanticide and abortion, it would have to be foolproof.
In Woman and the New Race, Sanger reported that women were constantly asking her, “Will it prevent absolutely?” She would reply that yes, there were methods “which are not only dependable, but which can be used without injury.”
She would assure them that doubts about their effectiveness came from “uninformed” doctors and neighbors. Even if the law forbade her to name the methods, she could tell them they had “stood the test of certainty” in Holland, France, and England, as witnessed by those countries’ falling birthrates.
But in My Fight a decade later, after having given women all these assurances, she flatly contradicted herself. She admitted that the “need for reliable methods has been far greater and more extended than the ability on the part of the medical profession or science to supply them” and that “biologists and bio-chemists are now at work perfecting the science of contraception.” Contraception offered no “certainty” after all.
So what happens when contraceptives fail and women are faced, to use her term, with “involuntary motherhood”? Sanger explained that “nearly all” working-class women in this situation fall into two groups: The first will “find refuge in abortion,” and the second will be “hopelessly” resigned to bearing the child. Those “in whom the feminine urge to freedom is strongest choose the abortionist”—women, she said, are driven to defy “church and state” by “the strongest force” in their nature, by an “absolute, elemental, inner urge” of the “feminine spirit”—while the others bring children to birth all the while “hoping that they will be born dead or die.”
She was well aware that abortion in Europe was a backup to contraception, for she had visited Europe several times, and she noted that in the Berlin of the 1920s, “contraceptive devices could be purchased in every apothecary shop,” yet “more than half of the known pregnancies ended in abortion.” But she saw an aborted child as no worse off than an orphan: “When the practice of abortion was put under the ban by the Church, an alternate evil—the foundling asylum, with its horrifying history—sprang up.”
One way in which Sanger defended infanticide was to argue that it was universally practiced by primitive women and was of great benefit to them. As an atheist, she did not see infanticide among primitives as evidence of Original Sin. Citing sources alleging that child-murder was practiced by primitives all over the world, she argued that the “privileges of women” were greatest in just those places where infanticide was the rule.
Instead of giving proof of this, she asked two rhetorical questions: “If infanticide did not spring from a desire within the woman herself, from a desire stronger than motherhood, would it prevail where women enjoy an influence equal to that of men? And does not the fact that the women in question do enjoy such influence, point unmistakably to the motive behind the practice?” In other words, primitive women killed their offspring from a natural “desire” for power and status.
It seems to defy logic to claim that women have the greatest “influence” and “privileges” in places where female infants are systematically slaughtered, yet she argued that female infanticide limits the supply of women and so raises the value of the survivors. (In the same way, she saw the deaths of millions of soldiers in World War I as giving “temporary advantages” to laboring men of the 1920s.)
A second way in which Sanger defended infanticide was to assert that it increased as civilization advanced.
Plato and Aristotle recommended abortion and infanticide in cases of deformed, sickly, or surplus children. She praised Aristotle for being a “conscious advocate of family limitation even if attained by violent means.”
In Sparta, she claimed, women “ruled their husbands” and owned land, so if they killed “unwanted children,” they chose to do it as an act of “personal freedom.” She selected the courtesan Aspasia and the lesbian Sappho as fitting models for women and claimed that Greek wives were so envious of Sappho’s freedom and attainments that they killed their children to emulate her. Instead of proving this, she simply asked another rhetorical question: “Can there be any doubt that they acquiesced in the practice of infanticide as a means to that end?”
This was not just historical nostalgia. Sanger pointedly justified female infanticide in the China of her own day. She complained of “meddling” Christian missionaries who campaigned “to keep parents from drowning girl children,” only to cause food shortages. She also complained that these same missionaries were engaged in the “fruitless” task of “temporarily” relieving the “physical miseries of otherwise neglected elements.” The implication is that the “neglected elements” should be left alone to die.
A third way in which Sanger defended infanticide was to say that its practice through the ages shows that it comes from an irresistible female “instinct.” She explained that “the wide prevalence of the custom is the first and best proof that women are driven by some great pressure within themselves to accede to it,” the words instinct and driven suggesting that the mothers have no free will in making this supposed “choice.” Despite heavy penalties and the availability of foundling homes, she claimed, infanticide remained the most common crime in Christian Europe until the end of the eighteenth century, when it stopped only because abortion supplanted it.
She insisted that infanticide could never be suppressed, but could only evolve into abortion and contraception. It would disappear when the “skill in producing abortions is developed or knowledge of contraceptives is spread, and only then.” If infanticide is a stage in a natural evolution, it follows that women can fall back on it without guilt. Indeed, Sanger did not blame Chinese women in her day who chose to drown their newborn girls, even though they had “extremely skillful” midwives available to do abortions.
It is true that here and there Sanger deplored back-street and self-induced abortions as dangerous, but she did not condemn abortion per se when it was performed in a skilled way: “We know that abortion, when performed by skilled hands, under right conditions, brings almost no danger to the life of the patient.” She showed no compassion for the “unwanted child” and left ample room for the legalization of abortion as a backup to contraception.
Sanger also defended infanticide by arguing that the woman who got rid of her “unwanted child” was herself the victim of “violence,” violence perpetrated both by society and by her husband. She accused society of committing a “slow murder” when it enslaved a woman to “involuntary motherhood” while shielding itself behind “ancient, inhuman moral creeds.”
Sanger wrote especially vehemently against Christianity because she imagined that women had attained great privileges in ancient Greece and Rome by the use of infanticide, privileges that were “swept away by the rising tide of Christianity.” Ever since, she lamented, “sex morals for women” have been “repressive.”
According to Sanger, matrimony in 1920 was nothing more than “prostitution legalized by the marriage ceremony” and “a system under which the lawful rapes exceed the unlawful ones a million to one.” Compared to the wrongs women suffer within marriage, she declared, all other wrongs are “inconsequential in nature and in number.”
Therefore, the woman who destroys her offspring is not committing a “crime,” but only fulfilling her “highest duty.” She is “a martyr” when she chooses “the surgeon’s instruments” instead of “sacrificing” all that is “highest and holiest in her—her aspiration to freedom, her desire to protect the children already hers.”
Almost always when mentioning the crime of abortion, Sanger put quotation marks around the word crime. She wrote that “when society holds up its hands in horror at the ‘crime’ of abortion, it forgets at whose door the first and principal responsibility for this practice rests.” The blame lies “squarely upon the heads of the lawmakers and the puritanical, masculine-minded person who insists upon retaining the abominable legal restrictions.”
She did not, however, put quotation marks around crime when she charged the Catholic Church with teaching nothing “about the crime of bringing an unwanted child into the world,” for her, apparently the worst “crime” of all.
Despite her zeal to free women from motherhood, Sanger was determined to curb the freedom of those who disagreed with her. Typical of her views of the rights of parents was her declaration that no man or woman has “a right to bring into the world those who are to suffer from mental or physical affliction.”
She was equally contemptuous of the rights of doctors. After winning a legal victory in 1918 in the New York Court of Appeals, which ruled that a physician could prescribe contraceptives for health reasons, i.e., both for curing and preventing disease, she fumed that “few physicians” had taken advantage of the ruling in the previous two years, yet “under that decision, a physician has a right, and it is therefore his duty, to prescribe contraceptives in such cases.”
She transformed the judge’s permission into the doctors’ right, and then imperiously changed that right into a duty. Doctors were “bound, in the very nature of things” to exercise that right “to an increasing degree.” The word bound is revealing.
Health was an elastic term, so the 1918 ruling, according to historian David M. Kennedy, writing in Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger, “allowed physicians a wide latitude” in prescribing contraception “as a preventative or a therapeutic device.” But Sanger was not satisfied. In the March 1917 issue of her Birth Control Review, she wrote that medicine “should broaden its conception of its responsibilities to include the amelioration of eugenic, economic, and social problems through the application of medical knowledge.” She was poised to turn medicine into an arm of the population-control movement.
Sanger also dealt with those who disagreed with her by charging them with guilt and crime. She told the woman who wanted to have a large family that she was turning herself into a “brood animal” and engaging in “the most immoral practice of the day,” as well as doing an “injury to society.” If the woman was of the working class, she was to blame for all social evils: She should consider that “every jail, hospital for the insane, reformatory and institution for the feebleminded cries out against the evils of too prolific breeding among wage-workers.” If she was rich, it was “immoral” for her to halt her “self-development.”
Yet another way in which Sanger showed her lack of respect for the liberty of others was in her approval of coercive sterilization. A recent historian, Angela Franks, notes in Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy that Sanger regarded a quarter of Americans as “unfit” to have children, and recommended in her Pivot of Civilization (1922) that the state handle the problem of the “unfit” with “force or persuasion,” with “propaganda for the many and coercion for the resisting few.”
This would weed out the “least desirable members” of society by “the very roots.” Writing in her Birth Control Review the previous year, she declared that “drastic” methods would have to be used if “chaotic breeding” continued. Among the “unfit” she counted the “chronically indigent” and the disabled.
A New Religion
One may well ask how Sanger could defend abortion, infanticide, and coerced sterilization, yet still take such a self-righteous tone in My Fight for Birth Control. She performed this sleight of hand by using religious language and turning her work into an ultimate cause.
She recounted how, in the years before World War I, “a new religion” began to spread that had “no definite name.” All its followers were, like her, “freethinkers, agnostics or atheists,” yet they were just “as fanatical in their faith in the coming revolution as ever any primitive Christian was for the immediate establishment of the Kingdom of God.”
Like the members of the “early Church,” they too had “martyrs aplenty” among them. She believed that H. G. Wells summed up the “creed” of this “religion” when he said that the subject of sex was “obscene when whispered in secret,” but “decent and clean” when “proclaimed from the housetops in the open.”
Those who were really “indecent and unclean” were the serious Christians: “Truly the church and those ‘moralists’ who have been insisting upon keeping sex matters in the dark have a huge list of concealed crimes to answer for.” Sanger rejoiced that the new woman was knocking down the “barriers of prurient puritanism” and tearing “the veil of indecency” from the secrets of sex to reveal them in all “their purity.”
Interestingly, Sanger spoke occasionally of gods in the plural, as when she wrote that she put her task “into the hands of the gods” and trusted “the gods to do the rest.” She mentioned a “universal intelligence” at work that made it inevitable that economic forces would win out against religion and that the birth-control movement would inevitably succeed: “We are all in the same current of evolution.”
She predicted that in a few years the obscenity laws would be “ridiculous in the public mind,” and that sex-education would then “make the race completely free.” With violent glee, she celebrated the thought of women blasting their way “through the debris of crumbling moral and religious systems toward freedom.”
Sanger scorned such minor political victories as the women’s vote and equal pay for equal work. Birth control was the “fundamental revolt,” she announced, one that would “create a new and a better order” by solving “the problem of motherhood.” She wrote fervidly that the resulting sexual development would “lift woman” to “spiritual heights” inconceivable to “those holding fast to the old standards of church morality.”
Modern women would learn about “the power of the sex force, its use, its abuse,” and would create a “new sex morality” to be the “glory of our sexual natures.” Invisible “forces” were helping in this evolution: “The vision is clear, the faith deep, forces unseen rally to assist and carry one over barriers which would otherwise have been insurmountable.” Sanger could not conceive that such “forces unseen” might be the powers of darkness.
A New Race
When the new woman has rid society of the “old systems of morals” and “Dark-Age religious concepts,” she exclaimed, she will create a “race” that is “spiritually free and strong enough to break the last of the bonds of intellectual darkness.” In the midst of this superior race will arise “a Jesus” who does not “die upon the cross.”
She was “certain” that Jesus, if he were alive, would champion her cause because it was “never the intention of the founder of the Christian religion to impose a hard and set sexual code upon the human race.” He who “attached so little importance to the sins of the flesh” would find his “religion of love and brotherhood” expressed in her “clinics” and “scientific progress,” not in cathedrals and rituals.
She compared herself to the Good Samaritan, saying that when “doctors and nurses and social workers” saw women’s needs and passed by “on the other side,” she stopped to help. She boasted that her word was going round the world “to herald the coming of a new dawn,” that she suffered “a spiritual crucifixion,” that her sister Ethel was a “martyr” for the cause, and that a doctor who taught contraception was her “missionary.”
She called her movement her “crusade” and a haven for various believers: “Jews and Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike made their confessions to us, whatever they may have professed at home or in church.” The “minister” who proclaimed her “gospel of voluntary motherhood” from the pulpit did not yet realize its “regenerating import.” But by “controlling birth,” the new woman was about to “remake the world” as “feminine”: “Hers is not to preserve a man-made world, but to create a human world by the infusion of the feminine element into all of its activities.”
The reason for this religious language was that, around 1930, Sanger was lobbying Protestant clergymen, placing articles in denominational publications, and sending “representatives to nearly every church convention,” some of whom introduced resolutions. (The story is told in Kennedy’s book.) Her campaign was a success, and she moved quickly to the next step.
By 1932, she was instructing her staff physicians to make referrals to hospitals when a so-called therapeutic abortion was indicated. Her biographer Ellen Chesler observes that “medical standards for determining when a pregnancy might endanger life were considerably more lenient at this time than they became after World War II,” and so abortions “became so widespread during the Depression that they provoked a conservative reaction in the 1940s.”
Infanticide, abortion, and contraception were a single package for Sanger. Even though she argued that the path of “evolution” was from infanticide to abortion to contraception, with the promise that the third would eliminate the first two, she defended infanticide, whether committed by primitive peoples, ancient Greeks and Romans, or contemporary Chinese, and she justified abortions when they were “skilled,” praising as a “martyr” the woman who chose the surgical instruments of the abortionist to preserve her personal freedom.
Her legacy today is the forty to fifty million babies dead from surgical abortion in the United States alone, and the countless millions more, hardly ever remembered as victims of the same ideology, destroyed in their earliest days by abortifacient birth-control pills and IUDs.
The quotes from Margaret Sanger are taken from Woman and the New Race (Truth Publishing Co., 1920) and My Fight for Birth Control (Farrar & Rinehart, 1931). For more on the subject, see Gardiner’s review of Angela Franks’s Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy in the July/August 2006 issue.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.