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Margaret Sanger, The Smithsonian, And Abortion


Since we’re all about examining the roots of our national and city monuments in an effort to purge public spaces of any and all reminders of the evil and objectionable aspects of our past and present, now is a great time to talk about the woman in the shadows of Planned Parenthood.

I refer of course to Margaret Sanger who founded the first birth control clinic in the United States— as well as the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. Her parents were Catholic– and her father an Irish Catholic. Her mother gave birth to eleven children and lost another seven before dying at the age of 49. After that Sanger found herself responsible for many household responsibilities, particularly the care of her younger siblings. These experiences did not give her a positive view of large families. In fact, this is what she had to say about large families, “The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”

Sanger’s Reputation Today

Sanger isn’t known for statements such as that. Instead, she is known for advocating for women’s reproductive health and helping to push birth control out of illegality. Indeed, Hillary Clinton, democratic presidential hopeful and women’s rights advocate, had this to say about Sanger, “I admire Margaret Sanger enormously…Her courage, her tenacity, her vision. When I think about what [Sanger] did all those years ago in Brooklyn I am really in awe of her. And there are a lot of lessons we that can learn from her life and the cause she launched and fought for and sacrificed so greatly.” Bernie Sanders, the other main Democratic wunderkind has vowed to support Planned Parenthood, “But if the question is, do I support Planned Parenthood, then yes I do.”

“I cannot refrain from saying that women must come to recognize there is some function of womanhood other than being a child-bearing machine.”

Planned Parenthood has frequently been in the news lately thanks to the work of the Center for Medical Progress, but less so Margaret Sanger and her motivation for founding the organization. That is, until a group of black pastors wrote a letter asking the Smithsonian to remove a bust of her from their “Justice” exhibit– and then the response by the Smithsonian. In order to understand the request it’s important to look at who Margaret Sanger really was and how horrific her beliefs were.

Sanger held abhorrent views about minorities such as, “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population,” she said, “if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” as well as, “We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out the idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” As such, it’s no wonder that Planned Parenthood has 70 percent of its’ clinics in minority neighborhoods. Beyond her racism, Sanger held a low view in general of the vocation of motherhood, “I cannot refrain from saying that women must come to recognize there is some function of womanhood other than being a child-bearing machine.”

The pastors’ letter to the Smithsonian is available in full here and reads in part:

“Perhaps the Gallery is unaware that Ms. Sanger supported black eugenics, a racist attitude toward black and other minority babies; an elitist attitude toward those she regarded as ‘the feeble minded;’ speaking at rallies of Ku Klux Klan women; and communications with Hitler sympathizers. Also, the notorious ‘Negro Project’ which sought to limit, if not eliminate, black births, was her brainchild. Despite these well documented facts of history, her bust sits proudly in your gallery as a hero of justice. The obvious incongruity is staggering!”

They further take issue with the specific placement of the bust of Sanger in the National Portrait Gallery:

“Ironically, Sanger’s bust is featured in the NPG’s ‘Struggle for Justice’ exhibit, alongside two of America’s most celebrated and authentic champions of equal rights – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. If Sanger had her way, MLK and Rosa Parks would not have been born.”

The evil actions of people do not preclude them from also having changes of heart and becoming redemption stories, but there’s no evidence of a happily ever after scenario with Sanger. She never renounced her racist eugenic plans, and she never recanted her statements about killing infants. There are those on the left who argue that we need to take Sanger in light of the times she lived in, in essence keeping the “good” of her fight for birth control and rejecting what is less palatable.

What Democrats Ought To Do About Sanger

The Democratic party takes the majority of the minority vote— and they anticipate to keep that trend. With both current Democratic contenders for the White House voicing support (and support not qualified with disclaimers against the racist views) of Margaret Sanger, this shows the divide between supporting “reproductive rights” and actually examining the content and character of the person who so strongly pushed for those rights. When we remove the historical information and context of our organizations and refine people to just those moments and traits that we like, we have the ability to hold Sanger as a hero (at least if you’re a Planned Parenthood fan, that is).

Even evil people can teach us good lessons— if we are honest and informed about the fullness of the situation.

There is benefit in the presence of reminders of not just the good in our past but the bad. We need warnings about what humanity is capable of. History is not just about heroes, but also the villains. Censoring history leaves us with revisionist views and divorces us from the why and how we have arrived at our current state as a society. Even evil people can teach us good lessons— if we are honest and informed about the fullness of the situation. Sanger was not a champion for the weakest and most needful of protection in our society, but discussing her views and rising against her eugenics opens the door for others to fight for the protection of the unborn and minorities.

The Smithsonian has responded to the request by the pastors with a statement that they intend to keep Sanger in the Civil Rights section:

“Margaret Sanger is included in the museum’s collection, not in tribute to all her beliefs, many of which are now controversial, but because of her leading role in early efforts to distribute information about birth control and medical information to disadvantaged women, as well as her later roles associated with developing modern methods of contraception and in founding Planned Parenthood of America. Nonetheless, Sanger’s alliance with aspects of the eugenics movement raises questions about her motivations and intentions. The museum’s intent is not to honor her in an unqualified way, but rather to stimulate our audiences to reflect on the experience of Americans who struggled to improve the civil and social conditions of 20th-century America.”

People certainly aren’t one dimensional, and expecting people in the past to meet up with our current sensibilities doesn’t exactly make sense. This begs the question, though, of where that line falls. How much can we excuse before it becomes disingenuous? If those who identify themselves as “allies” of marginalized voices truly believe that, “the most important thing we can do is listen to as many voices of those we’re allying ourselves with as possible,” then perhaps it’s time for Clinton and Sanders, as well as the Smithsonian, to sit down and really listen.