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OTI Online
Spring 1990

MARGARET SANGER:
An Alternate View
by Jill Benderly

Margaret Sanger certainly led the struggle for birth control. In the process, she also set the course for the two main problems with the way contraceptives are provided today: The Third World get population control, not birth control; and physicians, not women, control the means of contraception.

Arguments in favor of birth control vary widely. They boil down to two: feminism, which sees a woman's control of her body - reproductive freedom - as an essential right; and population control, which sees limits on reproduction as an essential way to stop the so-called "population explosion."

Margaret Sanger in On The Issues Magazine Spring 1990
Margaret Sanger

As Meredith Tax recently wrote in The Nation, "In the end, feminism and population control ideas are incompatible, for one puts women's choice at the center, the other a particular vision of social good. Nevertheless, like many contradictory ideas, they can be found in the same mind." She was speaking of Larry Lader; the same goes for his mentor, Margaret Sanger.

Sanger began her campaign with the feminist demand (which Lader terms "strident"), "A woman's body belongs to herself alone" (1914). But soon her ideology changed to population control: "The greatest threat to the peace of the world is to be found in the teeming populations of Asia" (1922). No longer borrowing from socialist and anarchist ideas, Sanger now relied on eugenics: "More children from the fit, less from the unfit - that is the chief issue of birth control" (1919). This perspective played well, between the wars, to nativist and middle-class desires to regulate immigration, and to limit reproduction of Blacks and the poor. In 1923, Sanger proposed that parents apply for babies in the same way as immigrants had to apply for visas to enter the U.S.

Later, Sanger took up population control on a global scale as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). IPPF programs were soon supported by the Rockefellers and by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). Such funders were interested not in expanding women's freedom but in reducing birth rates and resource consumption in the Third World. The Hugh Moore Fund's classic 1954 pamphlet, "The Population Bomb", states the motives loud and clear: "There will be 300 million more mouths to feed in the world four years from now - most of them hungry. Hunger brings turmoil - and turmoil, as we have learned, creates the atmosphere in which the communists seek to conquer the earth." In her excellent book on birth control, Women's Body, Women's Right, feminist Linda Gordon argues that population control offers "a non-military tool for controlling colonies."

The solution to population problems should be redistribution of resources, and education for freely-chosen family planning. IPPF and other population control organizations, by contrast, sponsor coercive and devious programs: forced sterilization, cash incentives for vasectomies or IUDs (with rewards offered not only to patients, but to medical personnel at piece rates), and testing unsafe new forms of contraceptives (such as the hormone shot, DepoProvera, which frequently causes sterility) on Third World women.

Lader paints Sanger as a relentless militant. True, she started out this way, but by 1929 she was pushing to empower doctors to be the sole dispensers of birth control. As historian David Kennedy writes in Birth Control in America, "Mrs. Sanger's move toward respectability during and immediately after World War I helped to allay some medical fears. She stopped carping at bourgeois doctors as she delivered the movement into the arms of middle class ladies. And she began to acknowledge, reluctantly, her inadequacies as a laywoman and the consequent need for professional involvement.

She would retire from the field, she hinted, as soon as doctors stepped in and fulfilled their responsibilities in the matter of contraception."

As a result, the medical establishment today controls women's access to birth control. For example, Brooklyn's Kings County Hospital family planning clinic offers women the pill and the IUD, but not the diaphragm, because, one doctor told me in 1979, diaphragms are too complicated for "uneducated girls" to use effectively.

Sanger was able to deliver up the birth-control movement singlehandedly. The problem with her "rugged individualism" was not what Lader terms "militant abrasiveness." Rather, it was her insistence on single-issue politics. She denied her past connections to feminist and left movements. In her Autobiography, Sanger writes "it was always a problem to prevent emotional scatter-brains from disturbing the clear flow of the stream. The public, quite naturally, could not be expected to distinguish between purposeful activities and any others carried on in the name of the movement.

"Emma Goldman and her campaign manager, Ben Reitman, belatedly advocated birth control, not to further it but strategically to utilize it in their own program of anarchism." Sanger thus revises history and dismisses Goldman, who had agitated for contraception and free love since 1900 and introduced Sanger to those ideas in 1912.

Linda Gordon writes that "Planned Parenthood in fact represented the suppression of birth control as a bottom-up social movement, replacing it with a project of health, economic and social planning by experts."

Since the late 1970s, the fight against the antiabortion fanatics has forged alliances among feminists, doctors and population control organizations. While we work together to hold on to abortion rights, we must not forget that our long-term goals diverge. Feminists stand for reproductive freedom: For woman-controlled health care, contraception and childbirth; for an end to sterilization abuse; and for all of the social and economic rights that give women a real context of choice.


Jill Benderly is a freelance writer and Health Editor of New Directions for Women. She is a former co-chair of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, (CARASA).


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