A review of Margaret Sanger: Father of Modern Society, by Elasah Drogin

Elasah Drogin has written a very unorthodox biography of an even more unorthodox woman: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. In spite of copious footnotes-88 in the first 23 pages-the author employs a decidedly unscholarly tone. Drogin does not write as an historian who dispassion­ately examines biographical details and ideological inf­luences for an equally dispassionate audience. Instead, she hauls Sanger before the tribunal of humanity and decency in order to condemn her as an enemy of the human race.

The only time within living memory that such a tribunal has actually been in session was immediately following the Second World War at the Nuremberg trials. Civilized peoples still recoil with shock and outrage from the gruesome genocidal atrocities of Nazi Germany. Yet public opi­nion seems to have forgotten the intellectual roots of that hideous nightmare. Drogin reminds us that the war crimes of Hitler's regime were not spontaneous acts of madness, but the logical conclusion of the pseudo-scientific eugenics movement, developed in the early decades of this century and introduced in the United States by Margaret Sanger.

The fact that Drogin is Jewish would seem sufficient to account for her antipathy to Banger's eugenic pro­gram, yet she has other grounds as well. As a convert to Roman Catholicism, she opposes the eugenic practices of contraception, sterilization, artificial insemination, and abortion, against which her Church has taken a lonely and stoic stand. As a liberal democrat, she detests the imposition of such practices upon helpless minorities-blacks and Hispanics-by a wealthy, white, ruling elite.

The reader immediately discovers, however, that these three strands of thought are tightly interwoven throughout the brief biography. Drogin sees eugenics as the fruit of a large, racist, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish "bigot tree" that must be felled with one stroke. For this reason, her book will doubtless be unsettling for certain readers. Antisemitic Catholics and proabortion liberals will find themselves assailed with the same blade.

Sanger grew up in New York, one of 11 children of a poor Irish immigrant. With the help of two older sisters, she attended a private school in order to become a nurse. In 1912, after only three months of training, she married a wealthy architect, moved to the better part of town and settled down to raising a family of three children. After 10 years of the daily routine of a suburban housewife, she became bored and restless, and urged her husband to move to Greenwich Village where the intellectuals of the day gathered to discuss the latest ideas.

Sanger began to frequent the lectures of socialists like Eugene Debs and the early radical feminists like Emma Goldman and Ellen Key. Under the influence of the latter, Sanger began to reject the traditional role of wo­men and the bourgeois concept of the family. Instead, she adopted the view that a woman's individual fulfill­ment required a degree of sexual satisfaction to which permanent marriage and motherhood were often obstacles. Sexual associations, with the option of motherhood, should be completely voluntary, unen­cumbered by either law or social custom. Birth control, she reasoned, could go a long way in the liberation of women.

The socialists taught Sanger that the poverty she had suffered as a child was caused by the exploitation of the worker by greedy capitalists. Sanger, however, de­parted from the classical Marxist line when she con­cluded that wages were low whenever labor was plentiful. The working class, in other words, had bred too many children for its own good. In Sanger's mind, birth control was also a tool in the class struggle for bettering the conditions of the poor.

In 1914 Sanger traveled to England where she met Dr. Havelock Ellis, a proponent of eugenics. Three years earlier Ellis had published a book advocating steriliza­tion as a precondition for government relief to the poor. Ellis also proposed that the "random breeding" of tradi­tional marriage be replaced by eugenic farms in which carefully selected and scientifically matched couples would breed genetically superior children. Although variations on this theme date back to Plato'sRepublic, Ellis's immediate model was the American Oneida Community, established by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848. Noyes explained his views in Bible Communism, published in the same year:

We are opposed to random procreation, which is un­avoidable in the marriage system. But we are in favor of intelligent, well-ordered procreation. The physiologists say that the race cannot be raised from ruin until propa­gation is made a matter of science; but they point out no way of making it so. Procreation is controlled and re­duced to a science in the case of valuable domestic brutes; but marriage and fashion forbid any such system among human beings. We believe the time will come when random propagation will cease, and when scientific combination will be applied to human generation as freely and successfully as it is to that of other animals. The way will be open for this when animativeness [sexual appetite] can have its proper gratification without drawing after it procreation as a necessary consequence. [Emphasis mine]

Thus Sanger learned a third use for contraception: the purification of the human race through the application of eugenic science. Needless to say, Ellis and Sanger got along famously. In fact, they had an affair.

By 1920, Sanger had abandoned all at­tempts to help the poor. It was not unjust social conditions which caused poverty, she concluded, but the genetic inferiority and indiscriminate breeding habit of the poor which perpetuated their misery. As a result, the superior and rightfully affluent Anglo-Saxons were well on their way to being outnumbered and overwhelmed by Slavs, Latins, Jews and blacks. Such a frightening scenario crushed whatever faith Sanger still had in popular government. Something had to be done.

Sanger's social philosophy had crystallized by 1922. In that year she published a 283 page manifesto called The Pivot of Civilization. Sanger argues that the I.Q. tests given to American servicemen during World War I gave "scientific" proof that blacks and Southern Europeans were near morons. Such individuals should submit to voluntary, or if necessary, involuntary sterilization. The American Birth Control League and Birth Control Review became the vehicles for Sanger's eugenic cause. In the April, 1932 issue of the Review, she laid out her "Plan for Peace" which included mandatory I.Q. requirements for immigrants, sterilization and segregation for the "feeble-minded," government work-camps for morons, illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and drug addicts.

Sanger often included Roman Catholics in her catalogue of undesirables, but curiously spoke of them as if they constituted a distinct race rather than a multiracial, supranational Church. Far from conceding the absurdity of her assertions, Sanger defended them in an article for her Review. The Roman Catholic Church, she observed, handpicks its priests and nuns from among the most intelligent (i.e., genetically superior) Catholics, and then imposes a vow of celibacy on them. At the same time, the Church forbids the inferior remnant to use contraceptives, and in fact encourages them to breed like rabbits: The result, she concludes, is predictable. (It is not clear whether Sanger would have the Church recruit morons for the religious life, or require priests and nuns to breed like rabbits.) During the 1920's, the eugenics movement gained increasing support, particularly in the upper strata of American society. Its success is illustrated by the 1927 Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell, which upheld a Virginia sterilization law. Under the law, a young mother of an allegedly feeble-minded child had been sterilized when it was discovered that both she and her mother had scored under the mental age of ten on the Stanford-Binet I.Q. Test. "We have seen more than once," wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

In spite of such encouragements, the American eugenics movement was not nearly as successful as its sister movement in Germany, which enjoyed the patronage of the Nazi Party and dictated the official agenda for social improvements. This turn of events gave the American eugenicists a chance to see their dreams become realities. For example, Harry Laughlin, contributor to the Birth Control Review, wrote a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law. Hitler adopted the law and, as a result, Laughlin received an honoary M.D. degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936.

In the years immediately preceding World War II, public opinion in the United States turned against eugenics when Americans saw the Nazis put Sanger's theories into practice. Sterilization, abortion, euthanasia, and ultimately the wholesale slaughter of the Jews, shocked American sensibilities-at least for the time being. Sanger's forces quickly changed their tactics, their rhetoric and their stationery. The American Birth Control League became Planned Parenthood, coercive proposals became voluntary ones, and racial categories were replaced with demographic euphe­misms. The move to legalize abortion was dropped and the spectre of widespread illegal abortion was used to promote contraceptives as the lesser of to evils.

The events of the last decade have proved Sanger's fabian strategy suc­cessful. Although she died at the brink of insanity in 1966, her move­ment has at last conquered American public opinion. Hardly one citizen in a hundred, or perhaps a thousand, would seriously question the desir­ability of contraceptives; and the majority of Americans now accepts abortion at least in the cases of rape and incest.

Furthermore, the racist element of Sanger's eugenics program remains intact, even if it is a closely guarded secret. Drogin documents the following statistics: a) Nonwhite women have more than twice as many abor­tions per capita as white women; b) Although only 22% of Maryland is nonwhite, 40% of abortions performed there in 1976 were on blacks; c) Nationally, while 13% of the population is nonwhite, 33% of all 1976 abortions were performed on nonwhites; d) On January 16,1978, the Los Angeles Times carried 10 column-inches of clas­sified ads offering abortions. On the same day, the Los Angeles Opinion, the Spanish-language daily with a fraction of the circulation of the Times, carried 38 column-inches, nearly four times as many.

One entire chapter of Drogin's book is dedicated to Monsignor John Ryan who, until his death in 1945, was a constant thorn in Margaret Sanger's side. Describing himself as an "unrepentant liberal," he publicly con­demned her as illiberal, and even debated her at a Con­gressional hearing in 1932. Ryan argued that the "law of nature and of nature's God," enshrined in both his Church's social teaching and in the political philosophy of the American Founding, guaranteed to all men the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The latter included, as Ryan understood it, the right to marriage and procreation, "ordained by God's authority from the beginning." In an article in Commonweal, Ryan stated: "Citizens can derive consolation and courage from the reflection that they are battling for fundamental democracy . . . against all the tyrannies that self-righteous and 'superior' sections of our population would impose upon their 'inferior' fellow citizens."

The final chapter of Drogin's book attacks Sanger's fundamental assumption that intelligence can be measured. Drogin labels the Stanford-Binet I.Q. Test a "tragic hoax" and "an absurdity on a par with astrology or palmistry." Curiously, however", she gives almost no evidence to support her view, even though many criti­cisms of intelligence testing have recently been published. There is, for example, an interesting treat­ment of the Stanford-Binet Test in The Mismeasure of Man by Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould. Not only was Binet doubtful that intelligence could be measured at all, he was certain that it could not be measured by a single number, like age or height. His testing procedure was intended solely to detect educational impediments among schoolchildren. Yet, his benevolent purposes seem to have been turned to mischief by American genetic determinists of the Sanger school.

Even if there were some objective standard for intelli­gence, there does not appear to be any conclusive evi­dence that intelligent parents invariably or even fre­quently produce equally intelligent offspring. Further­more, even if they did, an abundance of geniuses could conceivably solve the problems of the world only if the world's problems were essentially technological rather than moral. And that is a proposition about which one can entertain reasonable doubt.