It’s Time to Stop Talking About Whether Margaret Sanger Was Racist

Even as the reproductive rights movement makes great strides when it comes to racial justice, it is failing when it comes to disability justice.

In her New York Times op-ed, Planned Parenthood President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson seemed to be wrestling with the complicated facts and nuance of the work and activism by Margaret Sanger, the organization's founder. Getty Images

“Planned Parenthood has had a hard time getting their arms around how to rebut the relentless attacks on Margaret Sanger.”

That’s what Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, founder of the Exceptional Leadership Institute for Women, told me three years ago when Cecile Richards stepped down as head of Planned Parenthood, and speculation ensued about who should replace her.

I argued at the time that the new leader should be a Black feminist, one equipped to confront the ways Black women’s reproductive liberation has been weaponized by an anti-choice movement that frequently hides behind people like Star Parker and Alveda King—Black women willing to regurgitate white supremacist talking points about Black women, abortion, and Planned Parenthood’s purportedly nefarious role in the Black community. To hear them tell it, Planned Parenthood was founded specifically to fulfill Margaret Sanger’s mission to eradicate Black people from existence.

This is, of course, a lie—one that I debunked six years ago—and frankly, I’m tired of talking about it.

That’s why I was pleased to see an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times by Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood president and CEO, announcing that the organization was done making excuses for its founder.

McGill Johnson made swift work of noting that Planned Parenthood “has failed to own the impact of our founder’s actions.” As she pointed out:

We have defended Sanger as a protector of bodily autonomy and self-determination while excusing her association with white supremacist groups and eugenics as an unfortunate “product of her time.” Until recently, we have hidden behind the assertion that her beliefs were the norm for people of her class and era, always being sure to name her work alongside that of W.E.B. DuBois and other Black freedom fighters.

Indeed, in my article about Margaret Sanger, I argued that Sanger was a product of her time, before noting that eugenics was a philosophy that had taken hold in this country during the turn of the century. As I wrote in 2015:

It is undeniable that Sanger espoused some problematic and racist views about Black people. Certainly her paternalistic attitudes about Black people’s ability to disseminate information about birth control in their own community—along with Sanger’s view that, as Dorothy Roberts wrote, “many Blacks were too ignorant and superstitious to use contraceptives on their own”—were indubitably racist. And although you’d be hard-pressed to find any white person at the time who was completely free of racist thinking, and some of her problematic views echoed the views of prominent Black leaders, that still doesn’t absolve her.

In her op-ed, McGill Johnson seemed to be wrestling with the same complicated facts and nuance of Sanger’s work and activism. On the one hand, Sanger was a product of her time, and she would do anything and talk to anyone in order to further her birth control crusade. On the other hand, that’s not an excuse. On the one hand, she wasn’t a member of the KKK and didn’t subscribe to the KKK’s virulent racist views. On the other hand, she had no problem talking to the women’s auxiliary of the KKK at a rally in Silver Lake, New Jersey, in order to drum up support for her birth control mission. Associating with the KKK to serve an end goal isn’t as bad as being a member of the KKK, but it’s not great either.

I understand why she did it. That doesn’t mean I think it was a good idea.

But ultimately—I don’t really care.

Conservatives are a broken record when it comes to Margaret Sanger

The viewpoints that Margaret Sanger held more than 70 years ago have no bearing on the services that Planned Parenthood provides today. Even so, conservatives have been on a concerted crusade to cancel Sanger, a woman who has been dead for 55 years—even going so far as to demand that her bust be removed from the National Gallery.

They are like a broken record, which has led me, regretfully, to sound like a broken record. So please, bear with me as I sing this old familiar tune.

Anti-choicers have long insisted that Planned Parenthood was founded based on Sanger’s push to use birth control as a tool of genocide in the Black community. This is not true. She worked with Black intellectuals of her day to bring birth control to the South in order to give Black women family planning options.

Anti-choicers also insist that Sanger founded Planned Parenthood so that she could erect pop-up clinics in every Black community in the United States and lure Black women into becoming the architects of a genocide of their own people. Again, not true. Not only is this a lie, it insults the intelligence of Black women who get abortions for reasons that are nobody’s business but their own—including the inability to afford to care for the babies that the state wants to force them to have.

That is not to say that Planned Parenthood’s relationship to the Black community has not been fraught. Beginning in 2013, Planned Parenthood began taking steps to reach out to the Black community, an initiative DeWeever was involved with. (Full disclosure: I spoke with DeWeever about her efforts in 2013, and in 2015, I attended meetings with Planned Parenthood leadership about how the organization could reckon with Sanger’s past.)

A successful reckoning with Planned Parenthood’s relationship to the Black community

Planned Parenthood has undoubtedly struggled with how to reckon with its founder’s eugenicist past, but the organization itself, in my view, has no sins for which it must seek absolution. Rather, it has a shifting set of priorities and a desire for more transparency, as evidenced by McGill Johnson’s argument that “we can’t simply call her racist, scrub her from our history, and move on. We must examine how we have perpetuated her harms over the last century—as an organization, an institution, and as individuals.”

These are things that have long needed to be said. Loretta Ross, one of the foremothers of the reproductive justice movement, pointed out years ago that “PPFA has never found a realistic and compassionate way to talk about Sanger’s complicated activism.”

“The organization has variously denied her racism, distanced itself from Sanger, or kept a fearful silence about the entire controversy, not wanting to provide bullets for opponents’ guns,” Ross wrote.

McGill Johnson’s op-ed, in my view, ably addresses the attacks on Margaret Sanger as a racist by not shying away from them. She faced them head on, and that op-ed should put to bed any further discussion about Margaret Sanger and her purported crusade against Black people.

But I know how anti-choicers operate; I know that some will continue prattling on about Sanger’s nefarious intentions to wipe out Black people. But, frankly, blaming Black women for Black genocide and accusing Planned Parenthood of targeting Black women isn’t as fashionable as it once was.

What is fashionable? Weaponizing people with disabilities.

Clarence Thomas paved the way for conservatives to weaponize people with Down syndrome

Reason bans—laws that prohibit doctors from performing abortions if they are aware that the motivation for the abortion is in whole or in part related to the sex, race, or disability status of the fetus—are becoming increasingly popular in Republican-controlled states. This is what Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights activists generally should be focused on. These bans are dangerous for all pregnant people seeking abortion.

Just as conservatives weaponized Black bodies in their bid to end abortion, they are weaponizing people with Down syndrome. Medical technologies have made it easier for doctors to diagnose Down syndrome, thus giving more individual pregnant people the option to terminate that pregnancy if they choose. And according to conservatives, this is eugenics.

It’s not.

But the Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, ruled last week that it is, thus creating a circuit split (a difference of legal opinion) with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in 2018 that Indiana’s Down syndrome reason ban was a pre-viability abortion ban and therefore unconstitutional.

Why did the Sixth Circuit take a different path than the Seventh Circuit? What happened?

Clarence Thomas happened.

In May 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky v. Box, the case out of the Seventh Circuit challenging Indiana’s reason ban. The Seventh Circuit had ruled, rightfully, that decades of abortion rights law prevents states from interfering with a pregnant person’s right to a pre-viability abortion.

Thomas agreed with the decision not to take the case, but wrote an opinion that laid out legal reasoning that lower courts could use to uphold reason bans as constitutional, and get around the rule set forth in Roe v. Wade—and reiterated in Planned Parenthood v. Casey—that states cannot ban pre-viability abortions.

His opinion was a diatribe against Margaret Sanger, and it focused on her eugenicist beliefs in a wildly disingenuous way: His opinion was laser-focused on Sanger’s belief in eugenics and “racial betterment,” and reading his opinion, one might think that Sanger was pushing for Aryan rule the way the Nazis did during the Holocaust.

She wasn’t.

Margaret Sanger wanted poor people and the “insane and feeble-minded” to stop breeding, irrespective of their race; when she talked about “racial betterment,” she meant bettering the human race by sterilizing people with disabilities.

Thomas purposefully elides the difference between eugenics based on ethnicity or race, and eugenics based on disability status. He writes about Sanger and the eugenicists who wanted to curb Black people’s reproduction as if they are one and the same. They weren’t.

The mainstream reproductive rights movement needs to shift its focus to disability rights

Sanger was grossly ableist, but she was not of the eugenicist school of thought that everyone except well-to-do white people should be sterilized or encouraged to use birth control.

So why do criticisms of Sanger focus almost entirely on false claims that she favored culling Black people from the population? I feel like I have been standing in the middle of a crowded room screaming and no one is listening.

By not confronting the cynicism with which abortion foes are weaponizing people with disabilities in order to march toward a world in which abortion does not exist, we are ceding the argument about what true disability justice looks like to anti-abortion advocates who don’t care about people with disabilities.

Even as the reproductive rights movement makes great strides when it comes to racial justice—as evidenced by McGill Johnson’s op-ed—it is failing when it comes to disability justice. And while I, being non-disabled, certainly am in no position to debate the merits of reason bans from the perspective of a person with disabilities, I can say one thing for sure: Conservatives don’t care about people with disabilities, and they certainly don’t care about people with Down syndrome.

As David Perry, a writer whose son has Down syndrome, wrote in Pacific Standard back in 2017: “The cynical use of my son’s disability as a wedge issue hasn’t made the world any better for him. Moreover, the issue of Down syndrome and prenatal testing, a space fraught with tension and complexity, is increasingly difficult to discuss thanks to these GOP efforts.”

Holly Christensen, whose daughter has Down syndrome, wrote in the Akron Beacon Journal that same year: “Our statehouse is controlled by the Republican Party and has been for many years. The same legislators who voted to outlaw abortion of fetuses with DS [Down syndrome] also voted this past year to remove language that would have increased funding to county DD [developmental disability] boards.”

She even notes that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, despite their cloying pablum about protecting people with Down syndrome—“By prohibiting doctors from knowingly and deliberately eliminating fetuses because of their Down syndrome, the State intended to send ‘an unambiguous moral message to the citizens of Ohio that Down syndrome children, whether born or unborn, are equal in dignity and value to the rest of us’”—has a bad history on disability rights:

The Sixth Circuit has a mixed record with disability rights. A recent decision stated a school could not be penalized for strapping a preschool child with disabilities to a toilet with a leather belt because it was part of the school’s pedagogy. Think about that.

I’ve thought about it. And the inescapable conclusion is that anti-choice legislators in Ohio don’t care about babies with Down syndrome (and neither does the Sixth Circuit). Conservatives have latched onto the idea of “discriminatory abortions” as the new frontier in the abortion wars because they want to make a big stink about eugenics.

But this has nothing to do with eugenics; it has to do with cracking the pre-viability abortion ban nut.

It’s not about eugenics, it’s about getting the Court to rule that some pre-viability abortion bans are OK

It is not eugenics when an individual pregnant person makes an individual decision to terminate a pregnancy. If dozens or even hundreds of individual pregnant people make a decision to terminate a pregnancy based on a Down syndrome prenatal diagnosis, that is not eugenics. It’s not a wholesale discriminatory attack on people with disabilities. They are still individual choices. There’s a debate to be had about these individual choices and why people are making them, but that debate should center people with disabilities or people who are raising children with disabilities.

But conservatives aren’t interested in that. They don’t care about people with disabilities. Not really. What they do care about is eradicating abortion. And if they can tug on people’s heartstrings by casting people’s individual choice to terminate certain pregnancies as part of a eugenicist plot, they will have found another method of chipping away at abortion rights.

Because the fact of the matter is that states keep enacting gestational abortion bans (6-, 12-, 18-, and 20-week bans) and have been struggling to find a way to start winning lawsuits challenging these sorts of bans. Thus far they have been almost entirely unsuccessful because courts have held fast to the rule that pre-viability abortion bans are unconstitutional.

But if anti-choicers can crack that nut—if they can convince the Supreme Court that the undue burden test, which says that states cannot enact laws that are a substantial obstacle to a person seeking an abortion, should apply to gestational bans—then all abortion laws will be subject to a very subjective test that judges can play fast and loose with.

Pre-viability abortion bans are unconstitutional: That’s a hard and fast objective rule.

Pre-viability abortion bans are unconstitutional if they pose an undue burden under Casey: There’s wiggle room there. What constitutes an undue burden in one state may not be an undue burden in another state. It’s a subjective test that can be manipulated according to a judge’s personal views about abortion.

And given the number of regressive conservative Trump judges on the bench, that’s a subjective test that will not benefit abortion patients.

In order to protect abortion access for all people, reproductive rights activists need to shift their attention to disability justice. If reproductive rights organizations and advocacy groups don’t meet this moment, abortion foes will continue to weaponize the disability community. That serves no one.