H. G. Wells, who always wrote better when he dealt with fantasy rather than reality, once stated that ‘When the history of our civilization is written, it will be a biological history, and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine.’ In a world of mixed-up values, it is not surprising that we have mixed up our heroes and heroines.
Margaret Sanger (1883-1966) is remembered as a fierce advocate for birth control and the founder of Planned Parenthood of America in 1942. As such, she receives plenty of good press today.
What is not so well-known is Sanger’s general world-view and lifestyle. For example, her slogan in 1921 was ‘Birth control: to create a race of thoroughbreds.’ Inevitably, she was a crusader for eugenics – literally ‘well-born’, the belief that racial and health perfection can be attained by weeding out the ‘inferior’ members of society.
From 1917 to 1938 Sanger edited the Birth Control Review and featured a number of articles that praised the eugenic sterilization approach that was being implemented in Nazi Germany. Indeed, Sanger’s view was set forth in her lament of 1922: ‘Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to maintenance of those who should never have been born.’
Sanger feared what she called ‘the sinister forces of the hordes of irresponsibles and imbeciles’. Her whole approach to life was racist and elitist to the core. She disliked giving the right to vote to ‘morons’, and warned about ‘the cruelty of charity’. Those who did not measure up to her standards were to be segregated from the rest of society. A promiscuous woman, she often declared: ‘I’m rich. I have brains. I shall do exactly as I please.’
Sanger cannot be held responsible for everything that happened in Nazi Germany but the philosophy of eugenics was behind the Nazi compulsory sterilization laws passed in 1933 and the implementation of compulsory euthanasia after 1939. And eugenics was quite influential in most Western democracies in the first thirty or forty years of the twentieth century, especially in the USA.
The life of Margaret Sanger should not be seen as simply a part of an aberration of American history. In New South Wales, the Family Planning Association was, until 1960, known as the Racial Hygiene Association. Only with the approval of an obsequious press could such a radical re-invention of its identity have succeeded in the way that it has.