Summary: The founder of the largest abortion provider in America is often remembered for her efforts to legalize contraception as well as her eugenicist views of the “fit” and “unfit.” Less remembered is the philosophy of Birth Control that she fostered by fusing together socialism, population control, and racial chauvinism. Much more than her role in advancing abortion “rights,” Margaret Sanger taught so-called Progressives how to unify leftist causes—a legacy still continued today and one that conservatives can’t afford to misunderstand.
Back in the USSR
Russia today is the country of the liberated woman. —Margaret Sanger
Sanger’s most fascinating journey was a six-week trip to the Soviet Union in 1934 with her lover, science fiction writer and socialist H.G. Wells. As was common for sympathetic Westerners who traveled to the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s, the tour was led by an American expatriate and evangelical convert to communism (ironically, the evangelical missionary Sherwood Eddy) and closely supervised by the state. She met a number of American and Western European expatriates, including Joseph Stalin’s American dentist, who revealed to her the wonders of the proletarian dictatorship.
Unlike American women, Soviet women enjoyed the right to contraceptives and abortion. “The attitude of Soviet Russia towards its women . . . would delight the heart of the staunchest feminist, [since] equal rights are settled and accepted facts,” the dazzled Sanger reported.
Not everything was perfect, of course. She commented that the Communist Party members’ “apartments were much better, lighter, airier, cleaner, more modern than those for non-party members.” The officials she met, too, were more interested in discussing Karl Marx than contraception—so much so that the answer for every question about what the Soviets taught in school was “Marx,” whether the subject was engineering or mathematics.
Then were the unwashed masses. “At Leningrad [St. Petersburg],” she wrote, “we were met by buses and driven through streets that swarmed with imperturbable, peasant-like people. The upper parts of their Mongolian-shaped heads all looked exactly the same.”
But nowhere in Russia received as much glowing praise from Sanger as the Soviet Department for the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood, responsible for raising up future generations of “New Soviet Men,” perfect communist archetypes akin to the Nazis’ Übermenschen.
Yet even the Planned Parenthood founder expressed concern about the “tremendous number of abortions” taking place in the Soviet Union, as historian Paul Kengor has documented in his thorough histories of communism and its American sympathizers. “The total number is not known,” Sanger wrote, “but the number for Moscow alone is roughly estimated at 100,000 per year”—an extraordinary figure for a city of just 3.6 million people in 1934.
Her Soviet handlers assured Sanger:
As soon as the economic and social plans of Soviet Russia are realized, neither abortions nor contraception will be necessary or desired. A functioning Communistic society will assure the happiness of every child, and will assume the full responsibility for its welfare and education.
Sanger’s gullibility in believing this Soviet propaganda is breathtaking. Of course, no such utopia ever emerged. If anything, abortions skyrocketed during the Cold War as part of the communists’ institutional war on the family. Legalization of abortion was one of the first acts of the Bolshevik government after it seized power in late 1917—four years before Sanger established Planned Parenthood’s predecessor—and by 1920 they were providing abortions free of charge to Soviet citizens.
Kengor has estimated that “by 1934 Moscow women were having three abortions for every live birth.” In 1936, fears of a fading future population prompted Joseph Stalin—hardly a bleeding heart—to ban abortion; his ban was overturned in 1955 by Nikita Khrushchev. A decade later, a scholar of the USSR recorded that “one can find Soviet women who have had twenty abortions.”
“By the 1970s,” Kengor writes, “Soviet officials reported an astonishing seven to eight million abortions per year, a rate unmatched in human history” [emphasis added]. For comparison, Cold War–era America, with a slightly smaller population than the Soviet Union, aborted an average of 1.5 million fetuses annually after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Population control policies weren’t unique to the Soviet Union. Even today, communist or recently communist countries have the highest abortion rates in the world, a remnant of the old Marxist-Leninist desire to tear down the nuclear family and raise perfect communists loyal to the regime. Communist China ended its generation-long One Child Policy in 2013. The Chinese government claims it prevented some 400 million births, making it perhaps the bleakest population control scheme yet devised.
Many regimes slaughter other peoples; communist regimes have slaughtered their own populations on an industrial scale. In an unwitting and grim homage to Sanger’s view of the “feeble-minded,” Khrushchev recorded in his memoirs that he believed 1930s Moscow was “constipated with many undesirable elements—nonworkers, parasites, and profiteers.
But to Margaret Sanger, the mission of Birth Control was that much clearer. “The right of women to birth control is clear,” she told her American audience upon returning home, “and this right need not be bulwarked, as in our country by health reasons, economic reasons, eugenic reasons, but is granted as a simple human right.”
“The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda”
Up to her death in 1966, Margaret Sanger saw little difference between eugenics and Birth Control. Much of her writing, in fact, tied the liberation of women to the development of a “cleaner race” through eugenics.
“Eugenics” (from Greek words meaning “good stock” or “well born”) is a pseudoscience aimed at improving the genetic quality of humanity by barring those groups deemed genetically undesirable from reproducing. The term was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, a British natural scientist who drew upon the theories of Charles Darwin, his half-cousin and friend, but the heyday of eugenics was the Progressive Era (1890–1920) until World War II, when it fell out favor after its clear association with the Nazis.
The eugenicists’ obsession with genetic inferiority jibed well with Progressives’ love of government action and sneering technocrats—the decidedly anti-democratic idea that a few enlightened experts could best govern the masses. Planned Parenthood, in its 18-page defense of Sanger’s relationship with the movement, notes that “eugenics was embraced across the political spectrum, from conservatives to socialists—so much so that it was taught in universities.” And that’s true: Republican President Theodore Roosevelt supported a lukewarm version and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill advocated sterilizing the “feeble-minded and insane.”
Yet it doesn’t change the fact that eugenics’ rocky core of support came from the Progressive Left, which urged teaching the pseudoscience in schools and applying it to government policy. One famous example is Civic Biology, a textbook written in 1914 by the eugenicist and segregationist George William Hunter that dealt sternly with the “The Races of Man”:
At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man . . . . These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; The American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America [emphasis added].
Far from an outlier, Hunter’s racist views were commonly held beliefs among early 20th century Progressives. The textbook was used to teach Darwinism by Tennessee high school teacher John T. Scopes, who ascended to Progressive stardom in 1925 after he was found guilty of violating a state ban on teaching evolution in public schools. (The so-called Scopes Monkey Trial is still celebrated by leftists as a victory for Darwinist education, though the racist textbook used to teach it is hardly ever remembered.)
Sanger treated “race betterment” as a moral imperative, which brought her in line with the eugenics movement. She wrote in the New York Times in 1923:
Birth Control is not contraception indiscriminately and thoughtlessly practiced. It 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.
Although she didn’t consider herself part of eugenics movement, Sanger was cognizant of its proximity to Birth Control philosophy, both in its moral foundation and goals. That distinction is important for understanding how Sanger built her coalition.
She was above all a political organizer whose principles were whatever worked. As with the socialists, Sanger incorporated flattery where helpful: “The campaign for Birth Control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical in ideal, with the final aims of Eugenics,” she wrote in an article entitled “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda.”
Although Sanger was willing to work with them as fellow leftists, she saw Birth Control as the true goal and other, similar ideologies as steppingstones. “Eugenics without birth control seemed to me a house built upon sands,” she wrote in her autobiography. In a 1919 article entitled “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” she argued that adoption of her Birth Control philosophy is a fundamental step “before eugenists [sic] and others who are laboring for racial betterment can succeed,” noting that both eugenicists and “the advocates of Birth Control . . . are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit. Both are seeking a single end but they lay emphasis upon different methods.”
The point of difference lay in the economic consequences of reproduction. Eugenicists were solely interested in “the mating of healthy couples for the conscious purpose of producing healthy children” and “sterilization of the unfit.” Birth Control advocates, however, went further, demanding an end to “all reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health.” “We hold that the world is already over-populated,” Sanger concluded. “Birth Control . . . not only opens the way to the eugenist [sic], but it preserves his work.”
Planned Parenthood is, of course, the best-remembered part of Margaret Sanger’s legacy. But the modern abortion giant came of age in the era when the Left proudly pushed racism as “Progressive.” From this bubbling cauldron of white supremacists, eugenicists, and population controllers the group drew a wellspring of support for contraception and abortion.
Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (the direct predecessor to Planned Parenthood) in 1921. As president, she aligned the group with the Malthusian League, a British eugenics society that advocated for contraception as a solution to “overpopulation and poverty” and named for the 19th-century scholar Thomas Malthus, who warned that the world’s population would soon overtake its ability to feed itself and starve.
The league brought together all parts of the anti-human Left. Co-founders included French eugenicist Georges Lapouge, who pioneered the bunk Aryan racial theory later coopted by the Nazis; the Austrian anti-Semitic novelist Johann Ferch; and Clarence C. Little, president of the American Eugenics Society. The league’s board at one time or another also included Eleanor Roosevelt, suffragette Kate Hepburn, and Raymond Pearl, a leading member of the World Population Conference.
It also included Theodore Lathrop Stoddard, a member of the American Eugenics Society and author of the 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy in which he argued for a racial hierarchy and anti-miscegenation laws and restrictions on immigration from non-white countries. His 1922 book The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man lent the racial term “untermensch” (“sub-human”) to Nazi racial theory, from its German translation of “under-men” to Untermenschen.
Interestingly, the league’s initial goal was the legalization of contraception in Congress and state legislatures, where it lobbied for multiple bills. Abortion was not yet on the table, much to the anger of hard-left elements. Ferdinand Goldstein, a German abortion advocate and league co-founder, left the league over its refusal to endorse abortion rights as part of its founding program. The group’s scope broadened to include abortion as birth control restrictions were loosened after World War II.
In the next installment of “The Legacy of Margaret Sanger,” find out about some of Sanger’s more controversial actions.