The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 60): Margaret Sanger, Eugenics, Birth Control, and Abortion

Five years after Lenin wrote The State and Revolution, and two years before Joseph Stalin came to power after Lenin’s death, Margaret Sanger wrote The Pivot of Civilization. In it she made a full-fledged case for the implementation of eugenics on a national, if not global, scale. Now, I’ve discussed eugenics in an earlier post, but now that we are in the 20th century, a few more things need to be said about it. After all, eugenics was “all the rage” in both Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century.

What we see in Sanger (as well a few others whom we will look at in later posts), is a particular worldview that combined (1) philosophical materialism, (2) Darwin’s biological theory of evolution, (3) a Communist-like valuing of “the health of the State” over the health and rights of individuals, and (4) a Rousseauean vision of a utopia where people could pursue unbridled sex with no consequences. Put all that together, and you end up with her argument for eugenics.

She started with the assumption that human beings are nothing more than highly-evolved biological creatures, and therefore should be treated no differently than any other animal human beings breed. She then reasoned that any “feeble-minded” person was a threat to the gene pool of human beings, and therefore should be forcibly sterilized to ensure that they could not pass on their defects to the next generation. What exactly consisted of “feeble-minded” tended to be extremely ambiguous, and therefore lay itself open to rabid manipulation by eugenicists.

“The emergency problem of segregation and sterilization must be faced immediately. Every feeble-minded girl or woman of the hereditary type, especially of the moron class, should be segregated during the reproductive period. Otherwise, she is almost certain to bear imbecile children, who in turn are just as certain to breed other defectives.” (Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization)

According to Sanger, it was a low I.Q., and not sin, that was the root of society’s problems. Therefore, the key to salvation was simply not to let stupid people breed. And so, Sanger believed that “scientific” steps should be taken by society to promote the genetic health of the race. In addition to forced sterilization of “feeble-minded” people, Sanger also advocated for the availability of birth control and the legalization of abortion. In fact, it was Sanger who started the organization Planned Parenthood.

“I consider that the world and almost our civilization for the next twenty-five years, is going to depend upon a simple, cheap, safe contraceptive to be used in poverty stricken slums, jungles, and among the most ignorant people. Even this will not be sufficient, because I believe that now, immediately, there should be national sterilization for certain dysgenic types of our population who are being encouraged to breed and would die out were the government not feeding them” (Sanger, in a letter to Mrs. Stanley McCormick, 1950).

Was Margaret Sanger Racist?
In our country today, Planned Parenthood is the subject of much controversy. Even though Sanger is a hero to “the Left” because of her advocating of birth control, she is demonized on “the Right” because of her advocating of abortion. There are also accusations (that are disputed) that she purposely promoted birth control and abortion among minority groups because she was racist, and that she called minorities “human weeds.”

Well, Snopes did a fact check on that claim and found that there is no record of her saying specifically, “Slavs, Latin and Hebrew immigrants are human weeds … a deadweight of human waste … Blacks, soldiers and Jews are a menace to the race.” 

That being said, though, Snopes also noted that she did write the following in a New York Times article on April 8, 1923:

[Birth Control] “means the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extirpation of defective stocks — those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.”

So to the point: was Margaret Sanger racist? Probably…but (sadly) the majority of Americans in the 1920s were racist. But you can even put the charges of racism aside, and you will still be faced with the more sinister views of eugenicists like Sanger, and their inhumane views regarding the “feeble-minded” and disabled.

Let’s Get A Few Things Clarified: Reasons for Birth Control
Now, to be sure, most people today have no objection to birth control and condoms, and view that as a smart way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. To her credit, Sanger could be credited for championing the near universal acceptance of birth control. Not long ago, the majority of children conceived would die, either because of a miscarriage or an early childhood disease—the “natural course of things” had a way of keeping the human population under control by itself.

But with the rise of modern medicine, human beings are now able to control more of nature and thereby ensure the survival of more children. Biblically-speaking, we have “gained dominion” over those parts of nature that killed off so much human progeny. With that kind of authority and dominion, human beings now have an added responsibility to control the human population themselves. Preventing conception from taking place in the first place is a way to do just that without sacrificing the dignity of human life.

Some people (like leaders in the Catholic Church) still object to things like birth control pills and condoms, on the grounds that such actions are violating the course of nature. The thinking is that if God doesn’t want you to have a child, He won’t let you get pregnant. But if He wants you to get pregnant, yet you use birth control and therefore don’t get pregnant, then you are sinning against God by violating his will. Of course, most people—Christians (and Catholics!) included—simply do not share this view. Most can see a vast difference between preventing the conception of a human life, and the killing off of that human life once it has been conceived.

Sanger’s Rousseauean Reasons
Sanger’s vision, though, was quite different. She didn’t want just birth control to prevent conception. She advocated for the forced sterilization of “feeble-minded” human beings, not to mention abortions that actually ended human life. And why? Simple: birth control and abortion should be readily available to everyone so that people could enjoy sex as much as they want with as many people as they want without having to worry about raising children. As she put it, birth control and abortion freed people from the “debauch of sentimentalism” and gave them the freedom to be sexually adventurous and promiscuous.

That’s right, the ideas of romance, love, and commitment were essentially an anathema to Margaret Sanger. In this respect, her views perfectly echoed those of the likes of Rousseau and Voltaire. Yet whereas Voltaire simply threw his illegitimate children into orphanages, Sanger did him one better: just abort them before they can be born! But what about the Christian notion of the sanctity of human life and the idea that every human being was made in the image of God? In Sanger’s view, such notions were ultimately cruel toward the human race, for they allowed unwanted children to exist.

Sanger thus argued that not only does birth control “help to subdue King Hunger by eliminating excess mouths to feed,” but it also “is an ethical necessity for humanity today because it places in our hands a new instrument of self-expression and self-realization.” Let me ask, what does this last thing mean? What is “an ethical necessity”? What “new instrument for self-expression” is she talking about?

The answer is simple: sexual libertinism and promiscuity. She really thought and taught that the more unrestrained sex one engages in, the smarter one will be: sexual excess equaled unlocking the genius within:

“Hidden in the common stuff of humanity lies buried this power of self- expression. Modern science is teaching us that genius is not some mysterious gift of the gods, some treasure conferred upon individuals chosen by chance. Nor is it, as Lombroso believed, the result of a pathological and degenerate condition, allied to criminality and madness. Rather is it due to the removal of physiological and psychological inhibitions and constraints which makes possible the release and the channeling of the primordial inner energies of man into full and divine expression. The removal of these inhibitions, so scientists assure us, makes possible more rapid and profound perceptions,–so rapid indeed that they seem to the ordinary human being, practically instantaneous, or intuitive. The qualities of genius are not, therefore, qualities lacking in the common reservoir of humanity, but rather the unimpeded release and direction of powers latent in all of us.”  (Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization)

That’s right, Sanger believed that engaging in lots and lots of excessive sex was the key to launch the human race into a whole new era. Therefore, not surprisingly, she saw religion (in particular, Christianity) was the great obstacle to such a sexual utopia. She said:

“The ‘moralists’ [i.e. Christians] who preach abstinence, self-denial, and suppression are relegated by these findings of impartial and disinterested science to the class of those educators of the past who taught that it was improper for young ladies to indulge in sports and athletics and who produced generations of feeble, undeveloped invalids, bound up by stays and addicted to swooning and hysterics. One need only go out on the street of any American city to-day to be confronted with the victims of the cruel morality of self-denial and ‘sin.’ This fiendish ‘morality’ is stamped upon those emaciated bodies, indelibly written in those emasculated, underdeveloped, undernourished figures of men and women, in the nervous tension and unrelaxed muscles denoting the ceaseless vigilance in restraining and suppressing the expression of natural impulses.” (Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization)

Sanger essentially said that traditional Christian teaching on sex (i.e. for marriage only) actually led to genetically inferior human beings (i.e. feeble, underdeveloped invalids, etc). It was a “cruel morality” that said sexual promiscuity and libertinism was sinful. So Sanger essentially said, “Shake off the shackles of Christian morality, and indulge in the Rousseauean dream of unbridled sex—that is the only way for true “enlightenment”:

“How to bring about these great adventures? ‘The abolition of the shame and fear of sex…Through sex, mankind may attain the great spiritual illumination which will transform the world, which will light up the only path to an earthly paradise. So must we necessarily and inevitably conceive of sex-expression.”  (Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization)

Needless to say, but I have a bit of a problem with Sanger’s argument that says, “It’s okay to abort babies; Christianity is cruel because it preaches that husbands and wives should be faithful toward each other; people need to engage in promiscuous sex so they can unlock their genius within and reach spiritual illumination that will transform the world.” Try using that line on your spouse, and see what his/her reaction is.

I will touch upon the issue of abortion itself in a later post, but I wanted to bring up Sanger here because she has been a major influence on today’s society. Sure, credit her with raising acceptance for birth control, but don’t be fooled into thinking she was a saint. Anyone who advocates for forced sterilization, abortion, and sexual libertinism as a means to attain spiritual enlightenment is not someone worth emulating.

2 Comments

  1. Great post, Joel, and I learned a lot. A couple of things struck me. I notice that in at least two of the quotes you listed, Sanger says “science says….” or “science has shown….”. In both of these instances, of course that is totally false. It might be true that some people of the time (including Sanger) believed that “science” had said or shown something to be true, and its even possible that some contemporary scientists did say something similar to what Sanger was talking about, (and I am aware that eugenics was very popular among scientists), but we now know that none of it was real. Of course, all of this is very familiar. How often do we read today the same kind of drivel. “Science says humans are nothing more than evolved apes” and so forth.

    Its also interesting to me that no matter how many times purely unbridled, libertarian sex has been tried throughout history, (ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, the 1920s, and the 1960s, to name a few) it never quite seems to stick, and eventually people give it up. One might wonder why, since on the face of it, it seems like a great thing. Aside from STDs, it turns out it simply doesnt work, especially for women.

    1. Yes, good observation…I even glossed over her appeal to “science.” But that is certainly a recurring theme in Western, Enlightenment, Modern culture: appealing to science in order to justify one’s particular biases and prejudices.

      As you’ll see as I go through the 20th century, there is a lot of commonality between the major movements, be it Communism, Nazism, Eugenics, or the work of Margaret Mead and Alfred Kinsey, and up through the 60s.

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