Leaving behind Margaret Sanger

Recently, the president of Planned Parenthood penned a letter reconsidering its founder, Margaret Sanger. Sanger was always a a lightning rod, and remains so decades after her death. It is a testimony to her memory that even now she remains such a polarizing figure.

Alexis McGill Johnson, as the CEO of the national brand, has the task of balancing the relationship of race and reproductive rights with Sanger’s place within that conversation. It should be no surprise that this discussion has been happening internally for a long time, with Sanger being a foil for radicals who distrusted the paternalistic history of Planned Parenthood, and religious anti-abortion activists who wanted to break away black conservatives from the reproductive justice movement. Framing Planned Parenthood as the perpetuator of genocide has proven to be an effective weapon, despite its political provenance and outright fabrication. 

The people who build institutions from scratch are rarely saints. They are not respecters of convention. They are often poor managers. Their work makes some people uncomfortable, and others they may hurt. They do not often anticipate future generations, while building the world they inhabit.  They are mythologies, and under scrutiny they often become uncomfortably human. 

Sanger was iconoclastic for many reasons. She worked with black doctors and intellectuals. She challenged powerful institutions. She encouraged white supremacists to have smaller families. She believed in that dangerous idea of “social improvement,” now revealed to be a <ahem> – problematic – sentiment, in a time where the relationship between nature and nurture was even more poorly understood. Yet, she connected women’s independence, poverty, and motherhood in a way that assumed poverty made society worse. And she had a minor, tangential, role in the eugenics movement. Who knows what she would say about the burgeoning field of epigenetics.

Still, she was adaptable in her leadership, collaborated with other leaders regardless of race, and adjusted her approaches when necessary. And this DNA runs strong in Planned Parenthood. If anything, it is what has allowed it to survive longer than almost any other organization and pass from founder to leader to leader. While we should, and must, reject the philosophy of eugenics, we should be glad that her institutional competence has shown to be inheritable as the organization changes. Sanger herself could have imagined critiquing her own organization, and would have accepted a just critique, just as she critiqued those around her. 

Condemning Sanger is a justified political decision. It seeks to shield Planned Parenthood from false accusations concerning its roots, and does so with the honest acknowledgement that the conservative assassination by association of its founders reputation was, by and large, successful. We should acknowledge we lost that intellectual battle, and we need to fight first for providing care in all its forms in the communities who need a voice the most rather than defend our left flank. In the end, that she was not a racist doesn’t matter: enough people think she was. And in an era where personal authority takes precedence over academic accuracy, we need to redirect our efforts. Being an anti-racist while being an ablest, doesn’t help create freedom for women.

The letter does implicitly reaffirm how the enlightenment, liberalism, progressivism, even social democracy itself, were all tarnished by political calculations based on race. The poison of white supremacy runs through all of it. Sanger was certainly a part of those paternalistic movements that sought to incentivize social “improvement.” The only institution that was against eugenics (formally, at least) was, after all, the Roman Catholic church, Planned Parenthood’s perpetual foil.

I was on the board of Planned Parenthood for eight years, and the national Clergy Advisory Board for six. We all understood that her legacy was complicated. Nobody defended her ableism. And there was always an honest willingness to recognize that we were more than her.

I simply seek to point out that the reasons she remains a target are not simply because of her beliefs. She is moral baggage in a broader culture war, and a suitable scapegoat for the sins of white liberalism. And she’s dead. While she can’t talk back, I suspect she would have taken herself down from the pedestal she inhabited, if only to continue the work Planned Parenthood bravely continues to do. Just as Sanger herself made unpalatable choices to the current generation, we will do the same. We make our compromises on behalf of power, because power is what changes things.

She’s gone, anyway, and the work continues. Let her go.

She would probably agree.