Friday, February 3, 2012

Catholic Girl Goes Bad

Margaret Sanger and her two sons
Well, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure has reversed its decision regarding funding Planned Parenthood projects.  I am disappointed as I thought it was an important step in separating a very good charity from an organization that ethically is somewhat of a mixed bag.  Planned Parenthood is a complex and interesting organization and it something very different than its founder Margaret Sanger created.  Let’s take a look at the woman who gave birth to PP.
Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was born September 14, 1879 into a devout Irish Catholic family (her maiden name was Higgins) in Corning New York.  Her mother had 18 pregnancies in 22 years, seven of those pregnancies ending in miscarriages, and died at age 50 of cervical cancer.   After her mother’s death, and perhaps embittered by it, her father became an atheist.  He also was a strong supporter of woman’s suffrage.  In some ways, each parent was to shape the life and philosophy of their famous daughter. 
      Margaret showed much promise and her sisters put her through college and later nursing school.  She interrupted her education to take care of her mother during her final illness.  While taking care of her dying mother Margaret contracted tuberculosis.  After her mother’s death, she married William Sanger and the newly married couple moved to the Adirondacks for her health, but as she recovered they settled in New York City where they travelled in a radical-chic crowd of such figures as Upton Sinclair, John Reed, and Mabel Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan, one of the founders of the Taos Art colony.  The Sangers had two children, Grant and Stuart.  Sanger began writing a column (the then equivalent of a blog) in the Socialist magazine, New York Call called “What Every Mother Should Know” (sometimes supplement by “What Every Girl Should Know”) about sexual hygiene. By 1913 the Sangers were estranged and though they did not divorce until 1921, Margaret took a number of lovers during this period.  Presumably William may have as well.   
      Sanger practiced public health nursing among the poor of New York and years later she would tell the story about Sadie Sachs.  Sadie may have been a fictional composite of many of the women that Sanger helped; nevertheless the story has a ring of truth.  Sanger said that she was called to Sadie’s apartment where she found the woman at death’s door from a botched self-induced abortion.  After she recovered, Sadie begged the doctor for information on how she could prevent an unwanted pregnancy and the doctor’s only advice was “sexual abstinence.”  Within the year Sanger was called back to Sadie’s but this time she found Sadie dead from her attempts to end a second pregnancy.  It was in the story of Sadie Sachs that Sanger found her call to help women have some degree of control over their reproductive systems.  Sanger began publishing a monthly newsletter called The Woman Rebel: No Gods, No Masters and she coined the term “birth control.”  She said that “each woman should  be the mistress of her own body.”  She published a pamphlet called Family Limitation but it was a violation of the Comstock anti-obscenity laws to print anything concerning birth control.   Threatened with prosecution, Sanger fled to England but public opinion in the United States was on her side and she returned to the United States when she was promised that she would not be prosecuted.  The year was 1915.  America was changing.  During her time in England she had an affair with Havelock Ellis, the noted British Psychiatrist and sexologist.  Around this time too she had an affair with Science Fiction author H.G. Wells.  She was still married to William Sanger, though estranged from him.  They divorced in 1921 and the following year married oil tycoon Noah Slee.  His fortune was a boon to her work providing her with the financial wherewithal to spread her message of family planning.   
       It is important to note that at this time not only Catholicism but mainline Protestantism and Judaism also opposed birth control.  That would only begin to change in the years between the World Wars.  While Sanger had been in Europe—where attitudes towards sexuality and towards birth control had been changing for some time—she learned about various contraceptive devices.  Upon her return to New York she opened a Family Planning and Birth Control Clinic, distributing contraceptives she was importing (illegally) from Europe. She was arrested and convicted, the judge declaring that women “did not have the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there would be no resulting conception.” Those days of keeping women in reproductive bondage were ending, however, and a subsequent judicial ruling permitted physicians to prescribe birth control to women.  It was a great victory of Margaret Sanger and her cause.  In 1921 Sanger founded the American Birth Control League; it would merge with several other organizations over the years to become Planned Parenthood in 1942. 
       Margaret Sanger was a proponent of eugenics.  Eugenics is the philosophic view that the human race should be “bred” to greater perfection by limiting access to reproduction to people who have stronger genetic material.  Sanger advocated sterilization of those with hereditary mental or physical defects as well as excluding potential immigrants to the United States who had undesirable physical traits.  Her views were not as rabid as her contemporaries in Nazi Germany who favored not sterilization but murder of the genetically impaired, but they are still shocking views even by today’s standards.  Her racial philosophy is even somewhat more difficult to pin down.  She was not, as some critics claim, and out and out racist.  She did believe that more darkly pigmented races were inferior to those with paler skin but if she was opposed to miscegenation she was not in favor of racial segregation and did not permit her clinics to show any discriminatory behavior towards African-American patients. Indeed she worked closely with the African-American community and one of her first clinics was in Harlem where she worked hand-in-glove with local clergy and community leaders to make birth control available to poor blacks.  W.E.B. DuBois served on the board of the Harlem clinic.  
       Ironically, considering Planned Parenthood today,  Margaret Sanger’s preaching the gospel of Birth Control was rooted in her opposition to abortion.  She vehemently opposed abortion.  She saw the dangers of abortion to the life, health, and well-being of the mother but her convictions ran deeper than that. Sanger was not a woman of religious morals, nevertheless she saw the ethical problem of abortion and felt that no matter how early in the pregnancy the abortion was performed it was the taking of a human life.  Her work and dedication as a nurse would not permit her to go that far.  Birth Control was for her “the only cure for abortions.”  Margaret Sanger died as week short of her 87th birthday in 1966. 

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