Margaret Sanger and the Eugenics Meme

April 27, 2008

Multiple Pages

Disclaimer: This is the second in a series of pieces critical of certain types of arguments that many pro-life advocates make.  My concern is that they have negative consequences for other issues and the conservative movement as a whole.  It is not my intention to disparage the pro-life cause, which I am sympathetic to.

If there is one bette noire of the Pro-Life movement, it’s Planned Parenthood Founder Magaret Sanger. This is not particularly surprising. Planned Parenthood is the largest and most well funded advocate of legalized abortions. Unlike groups like NARAL, they also set up clinics to perform abortions as well.  Sanger herself actually opposed abortion. In her autobiography she wrote, To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun. Instead of focusing on abortion, the pro-lifers attack Sanger as a racist Eugenicist and then imply that all subsequent supporters of Planned Parenthood are also racist Eugenicists. Like many people of her time, Sanger supported some negative eugenics. A few quotes often repeated include: “As an advocate of birth control I wish ... to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit,’ admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation…. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective. “Eugenics is … the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.” “give dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.” “keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.” By today’s standards these views are beyond the pale, but they were widely accepted at the time.  In Sanger’s time Eugenics was promoted across the political and racial spectrum.  Prominent proponents include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Lindbergh, Alexander Grahm Bell, Teddy Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, and Winston Churchill.  One quote that the pro-lifers wrongly accredit to Sanger is: “The mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.” This quote was actually made by NAACP founder W.E.B. Dubois.  Let me make it clear. I am not writing this to promote eugenics or Margaret Sanger. What I am saying is that conservatives should not try to win debates by to tenuously tying their opponents to politically incorrect views held by people who died years ago. Virtually ever single prominent American before 1960 would be considered a racist by today’s standards. Some of the changes in racial attitudes since then have been positive. However, reading out everyone who’s views are not in line with our present day thinking is what leads to renaming schools named after Columbus and Washington.  Furthermore, the guilt by eugenics argument is not restricted to abortion. It goes without saying that any attempt at a rational discussion of behavorial genetics, psychometrics, or sociobiology is almost immediately shouted down as eugenics by the Left, but it even goes much further.  Discussions of affirmative action, immigration, and even tax cuts are inevitably attacked by liberals as the product of eugenic thinking. Conservatives making the same spurious arguments against their opponents simply entrenches this unhealthy state of affairs.

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