Debates about Planned Parenthood often find their way back to Margaret Sanger, the outspoken birth control advocate who founded a forerunner to the group.
Opponents of Planned Parenthood, and of abortion more generally, have seized on Sanger’s sometimes controversial beliefs as a way to discredit the organization that she helped found. Such was the case on Feb. 8, 2015, when former New Hampshire speaker of the House William O’Brien posted a lengthy online comment about a previous fact check.
O’Brien writes, in his first paragraph: "In language that would only occur to one of the liberal elite, here is what Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and an active participant in the Klu Klux Klan and the eugenics movement, had to say about the immigrants, blacks and poor people for whom that organization’s services were targeted," going on to quote Sanger as saying they were "human beings who never should have been born."
That’s a lot to unpack.
There is little question that Sanger supported the eugenics movement (more on that later), but one statement really stuck out. Sanger was "an active participant in the Ku Klux Klan."
PolitiFact NH decided to check it out.
It turns out, Sanger did speak to a group connected to the KKK and wrote about it openly. In Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography, published in 1938, Sanger details her work advocating birth control across the United States and emphasizes her willingness to talk to virtually anyone.
"Always to me any aroused group was a good group," Sanger writes, "and therefore I accepted an invitation to talk to the women's branch of the Ku Klux Klan at Silver Lake, New Jersey, one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing."
Sanger’s account suggests she didn't hold the group in the highest esteem. After arriving at the meeting, a complicated process that involved driving to a secret location, it was time for her to speak.
"Never before had I looked into a sea of faces like these. I was sure that if I uttered one word, such as abortion, outside the usual vocabulary of these women they would go off into hysteria. And so my address that night had to be in the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand," Sanger writes.
It’s important to note that the Women of the Ku Klux Klan was not the KKK itself. It was a parallel, official organization, with branches in all 48 states. It supported the goals of the men’s group, and was based in Little Rock, Ark.
And that’s a far cry from being an "active participant" in the Ku Klux Klan, as O’Brien claims.
As for Sanger, she indeed supported the eugenics movement.
While the notion that the human race could be perfected by better breeding led to a horrific outcome in the Holocaust, it had been widely accepted in progressive, reformist political circles. Supporters included Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, George Bernard Shaw and economist John Maynard Keynes. And while he disagreed with and worked to debunk eugenicists who insisted on black people’s inferiority, African-American activist W. E. B. Du Bois subscribed to a number of the movement’s principles.
In other words, supporting eugenics did not automatically equal racism. Jean H. Baker, who wrote the biography Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion and is the Bennett-Harwood professor of history at Goucher College in Maryland, says attempts to paint Sanger as a bigot are simply false.
"As for Sanger as a supporter of KKK, it is just untrue," Baker wrote in an email. "She was far ahead of her times in terms of opposing racial segregation. She worked closely with black leaders to open birth control clinics in Harlem and elsewhere. She believed all women should have the information about birth control that rich women had, hence her lecture to the KKK women."
Ruth Engs, a professor emeritus of applied health science at Indiana University who has studied the eugenics movement, also said O’Brien’s claim was incorrect.
"Margaret Sanger, as far as I know, was never a member of the Klan. She would speak to any group who was interested in how to control their reproduction. This includes immigrant groups, black groups, church groups, in addition to professionals, physicians," she wrote in an email.
Author Edwin Black, whose 2003 book War Against the Weak paints a scathing portrait of the American eugenics movement, criticizes Sanger harshly in its pages for her eugenic beliefs. Ultimately, though, he writes, "Sanger was no racist. Nor was she anti-Semitic."
The Spectator article mostly refers to the passages from the autobiography, although it leaves out the paragraph in which Sanger compares her audience to children. It also treats the women’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan and the actual Klan as one and the same.
The blog includes similar content, along with information about the effect of abortions on the African American community. We should note, however, that no Planned Parenthood chapter offered abortions until 1970, four years after Sanger’s death.
O’Brien and the sources he cited all highlight a comment made by Sanger in a Dec. 10, 1939, letter. In it, she writes, "We don’t want word to go 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."
A 2011 PolitFact Georgia article examined this statement and found it was actually innocuous.
"Sanger’s correspondence shows this sentence advocates for black doctors and ministers to play leadership roles in the Negro Project to avoid misunderstandings. Lynchings and Jim Crow laws gave blacks good reason to be wary of attempts to limit the number of children they bore. In Harlem, she hired a black doctor and social worker to quell those fears," the article states.
We should also note that in 1966, while she was still alive, Planned Parenthood bestowed the Margaret Sanger award on Martin Luther King Jr. He accepted, and while he was unable to attend the event, his wife Coretta showed up in his place to read his speech. In it, King wrote:
"There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist – a nonviolent resister."
Given the fact that Sanger’s autobiography had been published nearly 30 years before King’s speech, her earlier address was no secret. It should be clear the civil rights leader did not think of Sanger as a racist.
In addition to the links O’Brien shared, he also threw a little vitriol our way.
"These facts won’t stop your defamatory attacks in your article or in the future," he said through his Facebook account in response to an inquiry for this article . "Your article is certainly already written and will be yet another attack piece intended to satiate the prejudices of the narrower band of the electorate who care what the Concord Monitor has to say."
Former New Hampshire Speaker of the House William O’Brien wrote that Margaret Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood and "an active participant in the Klu Klux Klan."
Birth-control advocate Sanger did give a speech to a women’s branch of the KKK and she was a believer in eugenics. However, her writings and other contemporary evidence make clear that she was not ideologically in tune with the Klan -- much less an "active participant."
O’Brien’s claim goes far beyond the evidence. We rate the statement False.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK)
New Statesman, The eugenics movement Britain wants to forget, Dec. 9, 2010
Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy, Medicine, Eugenics, and the Supreme Court: From Coercive Sterilization to Reproductive Freedom, 1996
PolitiFact NH, Liberal blog says NH lawmaker targets Planned Parenthood for 'cutting children into small pieces,' Feb. 6, 2015
"A Century of Eugenics: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era," Paul A. Lombardo, ed., 2011
"War Against the Weak," Edwin Black, 2003
Planned Parenthood, Family Planning - A Special and Urgent Concern (Martin Luther King speech), 1966
Politifact, Cain claims Planned Parenthood founded for "planned genocide," April 8, 2011.
Email correspondence, Ruth C. Engs, Feb. 19, 2015
Email correspondence, Jean Baker, Feb. 21, 2015
Facebook corresponce, William O’Brien, March 16, 2015
The American Spectator, Reflections on Roe: When Margaret Sanger spoke to the KKK, Jan. 22, 2015
Concord Monitor, PolitiFact NH: Liberal blog says NH lawmaker targets Planned Parenthood for ‘cutting children into small pieces,’ Feb. 8, 2015.
The Silver Lake Conspiracy, Did Margaret Sanger, the Ku Klux Klan and Planned Parenthood Conspire to Eliminate the Black Race, Dec. 3, 2007
Planned Parenthood, History and Successes
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