Bad means, good ends, and Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger is one of the heroes of the reproductive rights movement, and with good reason: She was instrumental in the push for full access to reproductive health services in the United States. In an era when birth control was a subject of deep taboo, she dragged it into the open and empowered patients to take control of their own fertility. That said, the means she used to get there were deeply troubling, and the systematic erasure of the more difficult parts of her legacy is a grave disservice. It’s beneath those who work in reproductive justice today to refuse to acknowledge the entirety of Sanger’s legacy, not just the pretty parts.

It’s possible to talk about what Margaret Sanger accomplished while also noting that along the way, she inflicted considerable harm and played upon damaging social attitudes — for example, she was a strong supporter of eugenics, and said so in numerous speeches, pamphlets, and other publications. The notion of ‘breeding a better race’ was extremely popular in Sanger’s era and she used it to her advantage when pushing people to support access to birth control. Think of a world, she proposed, in which we could better control who has children, how, and when.

But I don’t need to paraphrase her. There’s a wealth of information available on how Sanger thought and wrote about a number of marginalised groups, specifically poor people and disabled people.

The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.

Women and the New Race

…the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.

—’The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda

Neither in the neighborhood nor the school should the progress of the normal, healthy, growing child be impeded by those poor little victims of hereditary disease whose bodies and brains are incurably subnormal from the start.

—’No Healthy Race Without Birth Control

All of our problems are the result of overbreeding among the working class.

—’Morality and Birth Control

[Birth control] sweeps the diseased, the weakling and the feebleminded to the wall with her great gestures that clean the world for the fit and the strong.

Hotel Commodore Luncheon Address

Here’s the thing: Sanger always wanted to empower people to take control of their fertility. Sanger also successfully leveraged a huge social movement to make birth control seem more palatable to opponents, because eugenics was very popular in the United States, especially after the First World War (Germany, in fact, borrowed a great deal of its supremacist rhetoric and ideals from the US — another historical fact that’s often neatly elided). And like feminist movements of the era in general, she certainly engaged in classist, racist, and disablist behaviours among others — let’s not forget that those fighting for suffrage in the US used the threat of the Black vote to pressure society into giving white women the vote. These are things that people do not like to discuss because they make these movements seem tainted.

And they are. And it’s okay to talk about that, because nothing is clean and tidy, ever. In fact, we need to, in order to understand the tensions that have always existed in these social movements — to take one example, disabled people are wary of many social movements because we are accustomed to being either completely left out, actively excluded, or subjected to hateful rhetoric that marginalises us to score political points, which is exactly what Sanger did. Erasing that ignores the very real pain she caused — seizing upon it to discredit the entire reproductive justice movement or suggest that people who support reproductive rights now are disablist is equally unacceptable.

People are complicated. They’re the product of their times and sometimes they have to use the tools of their times to accomplish important ends. Sanger’s collective contributions to society were huge — including her contributions to already existing disablism, which certainly propped up notions about who should be ‘allowed’ to have children (not just who should be permitted to independently take control of fertility). These notions supported eugenic attitudes, forced sterilisation, and abuse of disabled people and still do. Sanger alone cannot and should not be blamed for them, but neither should she get a pass simply because of what she accomplished.

Every time I see Sanger unapologetically worshiped, I flinch. I flinch too when people get angry at those who want to bring up these parts of her past, because they’re facts. And I flinch when the right rails against her, treating her like Satan incarnate. Margaret Sanger was a complicated woman, just like we are all complicated people. The question of whether she fervently believed these things or simply partially believed them and used them for rhetorical effect is up in the air, and we’ll never know without explicitly talking to her. Certainly their repetitious nature in her work over an extended period of time suggests that she strongly felt disabled children shouldn’t be born, and that poor people shouldn’t have ‘excessive’ children (contrary to popular reports, she didn’t say that poor people should never have children, but rather argued that some people simply had too many).

Sanger was working in an era when women were severely disenfranchised, having to fight for every inch of social ground. While I personally do not believe that achieving rights on the backs of others is acceptable, she clearly felt differently, and pretending otherwise is disingenuous — not least because talking about it openly allows the reproductive rights community to slap down smears from the right, which casts Sanger as some sort of villain, rather than a woman who fought hard and won a lot of victories, but wasn’t a 100 percent awesome nice person. And that’s okay, because I challenge you to show me a 100 percent awesome nice person.

Image: Margaret Sanger tag, Hrag Vartanian, Flickr