Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist. Why are we still celebrating her?

The French have a word for it: débaptiser.

A prominent French scientist, Alexis Carrel (1878-1944) won the Nobel Prize for his inventions. His work saved military and civilian lives during both world wars. After his death, a grateful nation baptized the medical school of Lyons as Alexis-Carrel University. In the 1990s, however, critics recalled that Carrel had been an ardent eugenicist. In his book Man the Unknown (1935), Carrel recommended the use of gas chambers to deal with criminals and the insane. In the 1936 preface to the German edition, he praised the new National Socialist government’s eugenic policy of forced sterilization. The French government quickly debaptized Alexis-Carrel University and rebaptized it in the name of T. H. Laënnec, the uncontroversial inventor of the stethoscope.


In our own nation the work of debaptism continues apace as we confront our racist history. Calhoun Hall at Yale has been renamed. A senator and vice president, John Calhoun was an ardent defender of slavery and white supremacy. Georgetown recently removed the names of Thomas Mullady and William McSherry from campus buildings since both Jesuits had been prominent in the sale of slaves to distant Southern plantations in 1838.

Sanger argued for compulsory sterilization and segregation for people with disabilities.

As we purify our national memory, I would like to nominate my own candidate for debaptism: Sanger Square in Manhattan. Named after Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the founder of the Birth Control League (the future Planned Parenthood), the square honors an improbable feminist icon who championed a coercive brand of eugenics.

Sanger’s eugenics creed is clearly stated in her speech “My Way to Peace” (1932). The centerpiece of the program is vigorous state use of compulsory sterilization and segregation. The first class of persons targeted for sterilization is made up of people with mental or physical disability. “The first step would be to control the intake and output on morons, mental defectives, epileptics.” A much larger class of undesirables would be forced to choose either sterilization or placement in state work camps. “The second step would be to take an inventory of the second group, such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection and segregate them on farms and open spaces.” Those segregated in these camps could return to mainstream society if they underwent sterilization and demonstrated good behavior. Sanger estimates that 15 million to 20 million Americans would be targeted in this regime of forced sterilization and concentration camps. In Sanger, the humanitarian dream of a world without poverty and illness has deteriorated into a coercive world where the poor, the disabled and the addicted simply disappear.

Sanger represents a genteel prejudice shared by many members of America’s ruling class in the early 20th century.

Sanger’s eugenics project carried its own racial preoccupation. In a letter of Dec. 10, 1939, to Clarence Gamble (cited here), she explains the nature of her organization’s outreach to the African-American community: “The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” In her autobiography she proudly recounts her address to the women of the Ku Klux Klan in Silver Lake, N.J., in 1926.

Dethroning a cultural idol like Sanger is not easy. The problem goes deeper than the link between her birth control movement and the sexual revolution. Sanger represents a genteel prejudice shared by many members of America’s ruling class in the early 20th century. To face squarely the glacial eugenics of Sanger one must demythologize the Progressive movement’s pantheon: Theodore Roosevelt (who staunchly supported the eugenic research of the Cold Spring Harbor laboratories), Woodrow Wilson (who as governor of New Jersey signed a law in 1911 mandating the forced sterilization of “the feeble-minded”), and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (who in the Buck v. Bell case in 1927 declared forced-sterilization statutes constitutional). Such biases have consequences. At least 60,000 American citizens were sterilized against their will under the weight of such mandates.

When we improbably debaptize Sanger Square, I propose a new baptismal name: that of Carrie Buck (1878-1966), the Virginia woman whose fate as a sterilization victim was sealed by the 1927 court decision. The state of Virginia had condemned Buck as feeble-minded, as incorrigible and as sexually promiscuous. She was in fact a C pupil, only mildly disruptive in class, and the child she bore out of wedlock was the result of being raped by the nephew of her foster parents.

For all our current efforts to face the destructive biases in our history, we find it difficult to admit, let alone condemn, our longstanding hostility toward people with disabilities and to confront those elites who have fostered that contempt. Our cult of Margaret Sanger is a sign of that enduring refusal.

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Stanley Kopacz
3 months 2 weeks ago

Genetic algorithms are used in computer aided design programs like the one I used to optimize lens designs. They are meant to mimic the exchange of genetic material in living beings. For the program, success is measured by conformance to a merit function set up by the designer. In the open world, it is successful continuation of living beings in the complex open ended environment affecting parameters, many of which may be unknown. This I nickname with some mischief the ultimate genetic algorithm. I prefer the open ended play of life to someone defining what a better human being is when we don't really know all about what we are yet or may never know. Hier stehe ich.

J Cosgrove
3 months 2 weeks ago

Sounds very interesting, but haven't seen anything similar happening in life. People, like to think such things have occurred but there is scant evidence it has. Yes, genetic material gets mixed in various way in offspring but very little of it is new. As a consequence some offspring may be better adapted for certain environments because of their inherited combinations and will then thrive. What happens is essentially a reshuffling not a creation. So this can not explain the origin of genetic material that produces new functions.

People have mistakenly taken dog breeding, or other animal breeding experiments to illustrate what can take place in life over long time spans. They point to extremely different external characteristics as a sample of what is possible. But the teeny Chihuahua and the Great Dane are still dogs and can inner breed, if physically possible. Not much new stuff was created, just elaborate rearrangements of the original stuff. Mutations have a poor track recored of producing anything new of consequence because really dramatic changes have to take place to the code in order to get even one new functional protein. Occasionally a small change does have significant consequences but not the origin of new systems.

No one can point to an example. They can point to small differences occasionally producing something different but nothing on the scale found in the complexity of life.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 months 2 weeks ago

This particular analysis of yours can only remind one that Nazi Germany embraced eugenics as a way to assure and expand "The Master Race".
I suspect your children might have taken exception to your requiring them to provide DNA analysis, IQ test results, and "conformation details" of their marriage prospects. For that matter why didn't you just suggest they skip the bolabola of marriage and go right to the petrie dish where DNA can be examined before permitting future maturation of the zygot!

Andrew Strada
3 months 2 weeks ago

“The first step would be to control the intake and output on morons, mental defectives, epileptics.” A much larger class of undesirables would be forced to choose either sterilization or placement in state work camps. “The second step would be to take an inventory of the second group, such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection and segregate them on farms and open spaces.”

So Margaret Sanger only advocated sterilization and involuntary segregation of certain classes of people (the type we would now think of as covered by a preferential option for the poor and powerless). Who could find fault with that, given all the good work she did?

3 months 2 weeks ago

Andrew Strada, thank you, I salute and admire you for speaking the truth. Margaret Sanger should be highly honored for all the good she did and illuminating the way of the future! Especially for women. God bless Margaret Sanger.

Jacob Richardson
3 months 2 weeks ago

Only someone purely evil would advocate forced sterilization. You and Sanger are pure evil and servants of the devil.

Andrew Strada
3 months 2 weeks ago

Can either of you (Howard or Jacob) spell I-R-O-N-Y? I was being sarcastic (without much success apparently). I think she was a terrible person and I commend Fr. Conley for calling her out on her dismissal of large classes of less-than-perfectly-formed people.

Jacob Richardson
3 months 2 weeks ago

What is frightening is that so many people, like Howard and the Robert guy above, agree with the views you wrote that it is hard to know when someone is being sarcastic.

Andrew Strada
3 months 2 weeks ago

My apologies, Jacob. We live in an age where no matter how cynical one gets, reality can always turn out to be worse.

Carl Kuss
3 months 2 weeks ago

It is argued in some leftist circles that MS was not a racist, because her thinking as a eugenicist was more complex than the standard simplism of the standard racist boob. Her thinking about race was indeed more complex, but it certainly did contain ample chapters about the subhumanity of some of our brothers and sisters, as based on what we now call genetics. This I think wins her the right to be denominated as a racist or with some other more exact term which denotes something no less morally repugnant than racism. It might suffice not remember that she was indeed a eugenicist (supposing that we have not forgotten, meanwhile, the moral repugnance of eugenicis.) Can she then be celebrated as a champion of reproductive freedom? Yeah sure, if a) We do not forget that eugenics represents the very opposite of reproductive freeedom b) if we remember that abortion and contraception are not in themselves means of reproductive freedom but rather are means of frustrating procreation by an anti-natural intervention (subverting the honesty of the fully human procreative act). Then I will admit that reproductive freeedom does involve the right to a rational decision against procreation, and I will agree with the person who says that reproductive rights, and specifically reproductive rights of women are important and crucial.) Reproductive rights are important, but abortion and contraception have done unspeakable damage to the position of women in society. They have undermined reproductive rights. In how many cases to women recur to abortion and contraception because they are pressured into doing so? Our whole so-called liberal but really hedonist and cruel culture is built on the sexual exploitation of women. This is the obvious meaning of the sexual abuse crisis now engulfing us.

Dominic Deus
3 months 2 weeks ago

Dominic Deus here--I'm really disappointed that no one took the intersection of Mother Theresa's and Margaret Sanger' life work seriously. It's a question that really calls us to examine ourselves, what we believe and why we believe it.

Stanley Kopacz
3 months 2 weeks ago

If you want a more intelligent population, try keeping the $%#&ing lead out of the $%#&ing drinking water. This might mean electing politicians not obsessed with lowering taxes on the rich and large corporations.

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