We need to talk about Margaret Sanger.
For the 11 years that I’ve been involved with Planned Parenthood, founded by Sanger, her legacy on race has been debated. Sanger, a nurse, opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1916, and dedicated her life to promoting birth control to improve women’s lives. But was she, or was she not, racist?
It’s a question that we’ve tried to avoid, but we no longer can. We must reckon with it.
Up until now, Planned Parenthood has failed to own the impact of our founder’s actions. We have defended Sanger as a protector of bodily autonomy and self-determination, while excusing her association with white supremacist groups and eugenics as an unfortunate “product of her time.” Until recently, we have hidden behind the assertion that her beliefs were the norm for people of her class and era, always being sure to name her work alongside that of W.E.B. Dubois and other Black freedom fighters. But the facts are complicated.
Sanger spoke to the women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan at a rally in New Jersey to generate support for birth control. And even though she eventually distanced herself from the eugenics movement because of its hard turn to explicit racism, she endorsed the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell, which allowed states to sterilize people deemed “unfit” without their consent and sometimes without their knowledge — a ruling that led to the sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the 20th century.
The first human trials of the birth control pill — a project that was Sanger’s passion later in her life — were conducted with her backing in Puerto Rico, where as many as 1,500 women were not told that the drug was experimental or that they might experience dangerous side effects.
We don’t know what was in Sanger’s heart, and we don’t need to in order to condemn her harmful choices. What we have is a history of focusing on white womanhood relentlessly. Whether our founder was a racist is not a simple yes or no question. Our reckoning is understanding her full legacy, and its impact. Our reckoning is the work that comes next.
And the first step is making Margaret Sanger less prominent in our present and future. The Planned Parent Federation of America has already renamed awards previously given in her honor, and Planned Parenthood of Greater New York renamed its Manhattan health center in 2020. Other independently managed affiliates may choose to follow.
Sanger remains an influential part of our history and will not be erased, but as we tell the history of Planned Parenthood’s founding, we must fully take responsibility for the harm that Sanger caused to generations of people with disabilities and Black, Latino, Asian-American, and Indigenous people.
Sanger thought birth control would liberate women, and in so many ways it has. According to a University of Michigan study, the availability of the birth control pill is responsible for roughly a third of women’s wage gains since the 1960s. Reassessing Sanger’s history doesn’t negate her feminist fight, but it does tarnish it. In the name of political expedience, she chose to engage white supremacists to further her cause. In doing that, she devalued and dehumanized people of color.
We will no longer make excuses or apologize for Margaret Sanger’s actions. But we can’t simply call her racist, scrub her from our history, and move on. We must examine how we have perpetuated her harms over the last century — as an organization, an institution, and as individuals.
What we don’t want to be, as an organization, is a Karen. You know Karen: She escalates small confrontations because of her own racial anxiety. She calls the manager. She calls the police. She stands with other white parents to maintain school segregation. And then there are the organizational Karens. The groups who show up, assert themselves, and tell you where to march. Those who pursue freedom and fairness, but also leverage their privilege in ways that are dehumanizing.
And sometimes, that’s how Planned Parenthood has acted. By privileging whiteness, we’ve contributed to America harming Black women and other women of color. And when we focus too narrowly on “women’s health,” we have excluded trans and nonbinary people.
As we face relentless attacks on our ability to keep providing sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, we’ve claimed the mantle of women’s rights, to the exclusion of other causes that women of color and trans people cannot afford to ignore. And when we are rightfully called out by other leaders in the movement for reproductive justice who have pushed us for years to do better, we cry. In doing so, we’re failing in our mission to care for all the communities we serve.
We are committed to confronting any white supremacy in our own organization, and across the movement for reproductive freedom. We pledge to fight the many types of dehumanization we are seeing right now: the dehumanization of Black and Latino victims of police violence such as Adam Toledo, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others. The dehumanization of transgender people whose health care and rights are being denied in states across the country, and who face attacks not just from the right but also from trans-exclusionary radical “feminists.”
Some might see this as virtue signaling, but Planned Parenthood is taking this work seriously. Our senior leadership team is diverse. We have invested in training designed to give everyone, from the board room to the exam room, a foundational understanding of how race operates. And we are establishing new diversity, equity and inclusion standards for affiliates seeking to be a part of the Planned Parenthood Federation.
Achieving health equity requires fighting the systemic racism that creates barriers to sexual and reproductive health care. The pandemic has laid bare racial disparities in health care that we also see in who is most affected by increased abortion restrictions and in skyrocketing sexually transmitted disease rates.
As the nation’s leading provider of sexual and reproductive health care with a presence in 50 states, Planned Parenthood has an obligation to change how we operate. We must take up less space, and lend more support. And we must put our time, energy, and resources into fights that advance an agenda other than our own.
Margaret Sanger harmed generations with her beliefs. In our second century, Planned Parenthood has a chance to heal those harms. Reckoning with Margaret Sanger is one thing. We also need to reckon with ourselves.
Alexis McGill Johnson is the president and chief executive of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
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