The wars over so-called "cancel culture" are often cast as a conflict between the left and the right. But more often than not, they are about the left eating its own. One new casualty of "cancellation" by radical social justice activists is a 20th century progressive feminist long reviled by conservatives and admired by liberals: birth control crusader Margaret Sanger.
Planned Parenthood, founded by Sanger in 1916, has already removed her name from some health centers and renamed awards established in her honor. Now, current president and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson has denounced the reproductive health pioneer as irrevocably tainted by racism and other sins in a New York Times essay earlier this month. Until recently, Johnson wrote, Planned Parenthood had acknowledged Sanger’s flaws yet excused them as typical of her time — but no more.
Flawed, Sanger certainly was. Like many progressives then, she shared a belief in eugenics — human "betterment" by selectively encouraging reproduction among people with the best physical and mental capabilities. Her primary goal was to give people, especially women, control over their fertility. But she did, shamefully, endorse the 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell allowing forcible sterilization of those deemed mentally unfit, though there is no evidence that she actively promoted such policies. (While a later ruling curbed the worst abuses, some 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized.)
It is also true that, in her zeal to teach birth control methods to any woman willing to learn, Sanger once addressed a women’s Ku Klux Klan chapter in New Jersey. Shocking? Misguided? Yes. But was Sanger a racist? In fact, as Johnson acknowledges, she eventually distanced herself from the eugenics movement precisely because of its embrace of racism. She also worked with W.E.B. Du Bois, Adam Clayton Powell and other Black civil rights leaders to promote family planning.
Sanger’s readiness, as a white woman, to partner with Black activists makes her much more than a woman of her era; it makes her a woman willing to defy her era’s racial barriers.
Johnson’s text, filled with trendy social justice jargon, ultimately admits that it’s hard to say whether Sanger was racist. Still, it offers a lengthy guilty plea to vague charges such as "focusing on white womanhood," "privileging whiteness," and excluding "trans and nonbinary people." Johnson asserts that Planned Parenthood must "take responsibility for the harm that Sanger caused to generations of people with disabilities and Black, Latino, Asian-American, and Indigenous people" and for supposedly perpetuating these harms.
Just what the "harms" are is never specified. Regarding the alleged focus on white womanhood, Planned Parenthood has a long record of work in low-income minority communities, where its clinics have offered not only abortion and birth control but numerous health services. Many clinics have also provided hormone treatments to transgender people for years.
While Johnson asserts that Planned Parenthood will not "scrub" Sanger from its history, she encourages affiliates to make her "less prominent." That’s a shameful way to treat a woman who, unlike today’s feminists, endured real persecution in her fight for women’s reproductive freedom.
What’s more, this mea culpa is a gift to anti-abortion activists who have long tried to vilify Sanger as a bigot and portray Planned Parenthood’s services to minority women as a covert racist genocide. Now, Planned Parenthood itself seems to agree. What a brilliant move.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.