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  • Eugenics, Race, and Margaret Sanger Revisited:Reproductive Freedom for All?
  • Alexander Sanger (bio)

In winter 2001, the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York City sponsored an exhibit, "Perfecting Mankind: Eugenics and Photography," where posted on the wall was a quotation ascribed to my grandmother, Margaret Sanger: "More children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control." My grandmother never said this. The quotation actually came from a 1919 editorial in American Medicine that followed my grandmother's review of an article. This quotation has been repeatedly and falsely attributed to my grandmother over the decades since. After I objected, the ICP promptly removed the offending quotation from the exhibit, but only after countless gallery visitors had seen it.

Misattributions, misunderstandings, and outright falsehoods about eugenics, race, and Margaret Sanger have too often been the norm in the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries. Issues of race permeate current American arguments about abortion and reproductive rights. Abortion opponents, including some African Americans, liken abortion to slavery or the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Such imagery is not new. My grandmother called women subject to "involuntary motherhood" slaves.

Some of the most prominent men of the early twentieth century endorsed eugenics. At the First International Eugenics Congress in London in 1912, the attendees included the type of men my grandmother wanted to win over for birth control—Alexander Graham Bell; Winston Churchill; Charles Eliot, immediate past president of Harvard University; and Havelock Ellis, her friend-to-be. While attended by an overwhelmingly white, male, well-to-do audience, the impulses of the attendees and of those who supported eugenics should not be classified as necessarily class, gender, or race based. Eugenics in its infancy was seen as a tool for societal and human improvement. Reformers saw it as a way to enlist science, biology, and genetics in service of healthy human reproduction [End Page 210] and outcomes and thereby to improve the health and quality of all children being born. At its least offensive, eugenics called for improved prenatal care. At its most offensive, it called for involuntary sterilization. The downfall of eugenics came when reformers began to use it as a program of social control, promoting government intervention and coercion in human reproduction. This shift points to an ongoing issue in modern science—how to use science for good and how to define what that good is.

The entry point for eugenics into political discourse came from societal disapproval of certain sexual activities, specifically masturbation. Social, religious, and cultural fears and taboos, portrayed as medical "opinion," said that masturbation was bad for the human body and psyche, not to mention sinful. Masturbation was never, however, illegal. Doctors in the late nineteenth century developed methods of sterilizing both men and women, including the vasectomy; one physician began experimenting in an Indiana prison, illegally, by sterilizing those men he diagnosed as "chronic masturbators." The doctor, Henry Clay Sharp, performed vasectomies, circumcisions, and castrations on the inmates, presumably mostly white, sometimes doing over one hundred procedures in a year.

Sharp's zeal for his job led him on a crusade to legalize what he was doing and to expand the class of those to whom he could legally do it. In a 1902 paper, Sharp wrote: "I therefore suggest that you endeavor to secure such legislation as will make it mandatory that this operation be performed on all convicted degenerates. It renders them powerless to reproduce their kind, and it is an undoubted fact that the progeny of degenerates becomes a charge upon the state." In 1907, Indiana became the first of thirty states to legalize compulsory sterilization of "confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles" if procreation was deemed "inadvisable" by a committee and there was "no probability of improvement of the mental condition of the inmate."

At the same time as doctors and reformers were pushing for so-called negative eugenic legislation, some early feminists and birth controllers were also using eugenics to advance their cause. They used eugenic arguments in favor of eliminating involuntary motherhood and of permitting motherhood by choice, which in their view would produce healthier children. Late nineteenth-century feminists...


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pp. 210-217
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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