The history of birth control is long and complicated, starting way back in the early 20th century. In fact, the history of birth control and the American eugenics movement are interconnected. And, tragically, this racism never fully disappeared. Without taking the time to acknowledge it, this history will continue to repeat itself.
Margaret Sanger, a birth control activist and nurse, played a crucial role in the creation and implementation of birth control. Sanger first became passionate about the fight for birth control in 1910 when she moved to New York City. She soon became involved in local women’s rights and socialist organizations. In 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic. Although officials soon shut down the clinic, the courts then ruled in favor of medically prescribed birth control. According to Planned Parenthood, in 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood in 1942. After years of continuous fighting, the FDA approved “the pill” in 1960, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
Sanger hoped birth control would also finally provide women with the opportunity to experience pleasurable sex without fear of pregnancy. In her words, she believed that “women have every right to know about their own bodies”.
In addition, she hoped to offer financial freedom to low-income women by setting up her first clinic in an impoverished area in Brooklyn, according to the Margaret Sanger Papers Project. Back in the early stage of her political career, Sangers appeared to care about the reproductive freedom of low-income women.
American Eugenics Movement
However, as her career progressed, Sanger began to align more and more with American eugenicists. Eugenicists argued that those of “lower” social statuses and minority races should not reproduce in order to save “purity” and “sexual morality,” according to the New Yorker. And Sanger, according to PBS, publicly stated that “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.”
Some speculate that the American negative eugenics movement didn’t “progress” to the extent of a mass genocide because Americans fighting in World War II witnessed the horrors of the holocaust, a tangible ethnic genocide. Regardless, in the years before the war, American “scientists” argued in favor of white people’s “superiority”. And when such violent, racist notions became intertwined with the reproductive rights movement, supposed activists stopped fighting for women’s choice. They were fighting to sterilize Black and low-income communities.
Racism for the Sake of Political Gain?
At least some of Sanger’s public agreement with eugenicists may have stemmed from the political advantages provided by such an alliance, according to Northwestern University professor Kate Masur. In other words, Sanger may have aligned with these groups simply as a way of furthering her cause through political gain. In fact, she fought to distribute birth control to white women as well. This diverges from the common eugenic belief that white mothers should abstain from birth control in order to directly “combat” the false threat of racial extinction.
But, since she died in 1966, we can’t get inside Sanger’s head. And truthfully, her intentions are relatively unimportant because the effects were clearly racist. Plus, Sanger endorsed the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, which ultimately led to the forced sterilization of over 60,000 women
Modern Day Birth Control
For the most part, accessible birth control is much easier to find (although the recent Supreme Court ruling may change this very soon). Hypothetically (with an emphasis on hypothetical), everyone should have equal access to birth control, regardless of race or status.
But the deeply racist history of birth control still matters for a multitude of reasons. For starters, it’s still happening. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, as recent as 2008, a U.N. committee found that the U.S. has continuously fallen short in addressing racism in reproductive health care. Among these findings, the committee reported wide racial disparities among infant mortality rates and the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Further, racial discrimination within reproductive health access greatly contributed to Black women’s modern mistrust of the medical field. According to the New York Times, Harvard historian Evelynn Hammonds said “there has never been any period in American history where the health of blacks was equal to that of whites. Disparity is built into the system.”
In addition, sweeping this racist history under the rug completely invalidates the pain it brought to women of color and low-income women ever since the creation of birth control. To paint Margaret Sanger as a feminist saint is to ignore all she did to harm marginalized communities. As our understanding of intersectional feminism progresses, it is crucial that we learn to balance how we think about the achievements and shortcomings of historical “feminist” icons. In the case of birth control, this means dismantling the pedestal many have placed Margaret Sanger upon. Instead, feminists should highlight and uplift the voices of those who fought for equal choice and opportunity. This differs from those who forced birth control methods on women who didn’t want it.