Margaret Sanger Wasn’t Just a Racist — She Also Targeted Disabled People

The Planned Parenthood founder praised Nazi eugenic efforts and expressed contempt for “those elements at large in the population whose children are a menace to the national health and well-being.”

Margaret Sanger in 1916
Margaret Sanger in 1916 (photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York made the startling announcement that it would remove the name of Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger from their Manhattan health center as “a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood’s contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.” Karen Seltzer, the board chair of the New York Planned Parenthood, cited Sanger’s documented “racist legacy” and “overwhelming evidence for Sanger’s deep belief in eugenic ideology, which runs completely counter to our values at PPGNY.” 

Sanger’s racism and support for eugenics was prominent enough that prior to the New York branch’s decision, Planned Parenthood partially addressed it in a 2016 Fact Sheet, acknowledging her “speech on birth control to a women’s auxiliary branch of the Ku Klux Klan” in 1926 stating that “Planned Parenthood strongly disagrees with Sanger’s decision to address an organization that spreads hatred.” However, another troubling aspect of her legacy that the group also had to address was her ableism. Her past remarks demonstrated her firm belief that the “feebleminded” should be sterilized as a “biological menace.”

Planned Parenthood noted that “Sanger endorsed the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in which the Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization of the ‘unfit’ was allowable under the Constitution. This decision enabled states to sterilize citizens deemed unfit, without the consent and sometimes even the knowledge of those affected. (A majority of states adopted involuntary sterilization policies, leading to over 60,000 sterilizations by 1967.)”

“Planned Parenthood acknowledges these major flaws in Sanger’s views — and we believe that they are wrong,” they wrote, “we hope that this acknowledgment fosters an open conversation on racism and ableism — both inside and out of our organization.”

In her writings, Sanger advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” She wrote that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective” and lamented that Americans were “paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever-increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.”

She argued in 1938 that “institutional and voluntary sterilization are not enough” as “they do not reach those elements at large in the population whose children are a menace to the national health and well-being.” She wrote of a Nazi sterilization law “the indications laid down in the German law are being carefully observed. These are congenital feeble-mindedness; schizophrenia, circular insanity; heredity epilepsy; hereditary chorea (Huntington’s) hereditary blindness or deafness; grave hereditary bodily deformity and chronic alcoholism.”

“Surely everyone will agree,” she concluded of this law “that the children of parents so afflicted are no contribution to the nation for even if they do not inherit these defects they are children of parents so handicapped that life will give them little, owing to their necessarily bad environment.”

In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger, during her time as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said that “the greatest sin is bringing children into the world that have disease from their parents and have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents. Prisoners. All sorts of things — marked when they’re born.”

While Planned Parenthood has attempted to distance itself and the issue of abortion from many of Sanger’s views, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas linked the two in his opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, in which the court ultimately upheld “lower court decisions requiring States to allow abortions based solely on the race, sex, or disability of the child.”

In his opinion, Justice Thomas wrote, “Sanger’s arguments about the eugenic value of birth control in securing ‘the elimination of the unfit,’ … apply with even greater force to abortion, making it significantly more effective as a tool of eugenics. Whereas Sanger believed that birth control could prevent ‘unfit’ people from reproducing, abortion can prevent them from being born in the first place.”

Thomas also quoted the eugenicist beliefs of former Planned Parenthood President Alan Guttmacher who wrote that “the quality of the parents must be taken into account,” including “[f]eeble-mindedness,” and that “it should be permissible to abort any pregnancy ... in which there is a strong probability of an abnormal or malformed infant.”

Despite its statement disavowing Sanger’s ableism, present-day Planned Parenthood fights to allow abortions based solely on a diagnosis of disability. The group has acknowledged in court that women seek abortions based on disability diagnoses and defended that practice. Court filings in the case against the Indiana law banning abortions solely based on disability included an “attestation from the CEO of PPINK [Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky] that it has and will continue to provide abortions to women who seek an abortion ‘solely because of a diagnosis of fetal Down syndrome or other genetic disabilities or the possibility of such a diagnosis.’”

Statistics worldwide demonstrate that a good portion of society has simply accepted Sanger’s premise that it is better for a disabled child not be born. A 2017 CBS report found a near 100% abortion rate for those diagnosed with Down syndrome in Iceland. Denmark has a 98% abortion rate following diagnosis. The United States has an estimated abortion rate of 67% after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Modern defenses of aborting a baby based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome abound with some that sound eerily similar to Sanger. While Sanger talked of the financial burden of “human beings who should never have been born at all” in 1922, NBC News ran an opinion piece in 2018 where the author wrote that “mothers of modest means will continue to have limited time and resources to help their children reach their full potential” if they could not get abortions after a diagnosis of Down syndrome. Sanger worried about children who “have no chance in the world to be a human being practically” and a 2018 Washington Post column cautioned against “compelling a woman to give birth to a child whose intellectual capacity will be impaired, whose life choices will be limited, whose health may be compromised.”

Michelangelo, “The Last Judgment,” 1536-1541

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