AMERICA—Margaret Sanger, widely regarded as a birth control activist and sex educator, was the founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. (“Planned Parenthood”): a non-profit organization focused on improving reproductive healthcare. She allegedly had ties to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and Nazis, and was a proponent of eugenics.
Sanger was born to an Irish family in New York in 1879. Her mother had 10 other children, as well as 7 miscarriages. Sanger travelled to Europe to study about birth control methods, because at the time, such education was illegal in the United States.
She opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916 with her sister and an activist. It was shut by police after 10 days; the trio were charged with crimes relating to spreading information about birth control. Sanger was given the option of paying a $150 fine or being jailed for 30 days. She “considered the effect on public opinion” and chose jail.
Sanger later founded the “American Birth Control League” (ABCL) in 1921, which was renamed the “Planned Parenthood Federation of America” in 1942. On the 100th anniversary of the 1916 clinic establishment, Planned Parenthood released a biography of Sanger. The publication called her “a woman of heroic accomplishments” who was also “imperfect,” and her background “layered and complex.”
She regularly gave talks about birth control and related topics; one of these presentations was to the KKK. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “the Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of violence, is the oldest and most infamous of American hate groups. Although Black Americans have typically been the Klan’s primary target, it also has attacked Jews, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community and, until recently, Catholics.”
In her autobiography, Sanger wrote that “always to me any aroused group was a good group, and therefore I accepted an invitation to talk to the women’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan at Silverlake, New Jersey.” She added that “in the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose. A dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered.”
While Planned Parenthood announced recently that it “today denounces Sanger’s address to the Ku Klux Klan,” but noted that “in the 1920’s, the KKK was a mainstream movement and was considered a legitimate anti-immigration organization with a wide membership that included many state and local officials.”
Sanger was keen on eugenics, defined as “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition” by Merriam-Webster.
In 1927, Sanger supported the Buck v. Bell decision. Through this case, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sterilization of the “unfit” was valid as per the Constitution. This judgement, a eugenic sterilization statute, allowed states to sterilize “unfit” citizens without them knowing or agreeing to any such procedure.
According to the Family Research Council, more than 60,000 sterilizations took place by 1967 after 30 states implemented policies based on the Supreme Court ruling. Those sterilized were “vulnerable people,” including those whom Sanger deemed “feeble-minded,” “idiots,” or “morons.”
Sanger once wrote: “It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.”
Planned Parenthood made a note in its 2016 biography about Sanger, stating that “we denounce her endorsement of the Buck v. Bell decision as well as her involvement with the American eugenics movement and her adherence to some of its principles and values.”
She also established the “Negro Project,” “a pejorative sounding name to the contemporary mind but a commonly used term at the time,” Planned Parenthood clarified. The organization claims that Sanger aimed to assist African-Americans in accessing contraception and birth control services. She also raised money to train two African-Americans, a doctor and a minister, to travel around the South “preaching the benefits of birth control.” Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune were among those who endorsed the project.
Planned Parenthood explains that Sanger “lost control” of the project, and Robert Seibels—chairman of the South Carolina Medical Association’s Committee on Maternal Welfare—took over. Seibels reportedly considered Sanger and her employees “dried-up female fanatics.” Using the funds that Sanger raised, he allegedly encouraged black women to visit white doctors who gave them contraceptives and follow-up exams.
This was an unpopular offer, and according to Planned Parenthood, “the Negro Project was carried out in ways that were basically indifferent to the needs of the community and smacked of racism.” Sanger was supposedly “deeply stung” by the project’s outcome.
On the contrary, some claim that Sanger developed the Negro Project to prevent more African-Americans from being born. She allegedly wrote a letter to Clarence Gable in 1939 saying that they should “hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities… We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”
This was in response to a statement from Gable mentioned in the book “From a Race of Masters to a Master Race: 1948 To 1848” by A. E. Samaan. “I note that you doubt it worthwhile to employ a full-time Negro physician,” Gable wrote. “It seems to me from my experience…that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors, they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table, which means their ignorance, superstitions and doubts.”
Furthermore, according to Samaan, Dr. Alveda King noted in her blog that Sanger said “colored people are like human weeds and are to be exterminated.” King explained that the Negro Project was “designed to sterilize unknowing black women and others [Sanger] deemed as undesirables of society.”
King’s uncle, activist Martin Luther King, Jr., received Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award shortly before its namesake died in 1966. During his acceptance speech, he said that “the years have justified [Sanger’s] actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions.”
“Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime [setting up a birth control clinic] in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning,” King continued. “Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern.”
Sanger was also close to Hans Harmsen, a Nazi. The pair co-founded the International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) with Anne Marie Durand-Wever. Harmsen was also the president of Pro Familia—the IPPF’s subsidiary organization in Germany.
Sabdste Schleiermacher wrote a paper about Harmsen’s population policy, mentioning that the policy “was the foundation for the systematic execution of the racial policy in National Socialist Germany.” He added that Harmsen was nominated as president of Pro Familia because “on the basis of numerous scientific contributions to German demography, to birth control, eugenics and planned parenthood he contributed excellent [prerequisites].”
Harmsen resigned as Pro Familia’s president in 1984, and an announcement from the organization claimed that “the cause was criticism of his publication and activities as demographer and social hygiene specialist in the years 1920 to 1945…Apparently Harmsen represented positions at the time which are today condemned by the Association.”
A bust of Sanger is on display at the National Portrait Gallery’s “Struggle for Justice” exhibit. Several ministers wrote a letter to Kim Sajet, the institution’s director, asking for the statue to be removed.
“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,” the letter reads. “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!”
Sajet declined to remove the bust.
“Our museum is a place where people can learn about the men and women who have made a significant impact on this nation’s history and culture—both positive and negative,” Sajet wrote. “Sanger is included because, as the founder of the American Birth Control League, she strived to bring medical advice and affordable birth control to disadvantaged women at a time when even providing literature on women’s health infringed on ‘obscenity’ laws.”