At a recent address to Planned Parenthood, President Barack Obama declared, “For nearly a century now, one core principle has guided everything [Planned Parenthood does] that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about their own health.”
“Such a statement finds some basis in fact but ignores enough of the history of population control in the United States to leave Obama open to the charge of reading history backwards.”
Such a statement finds some basis in fact but ignores enough of the history of population control in the United States to leave Obama open to the charge of reading history backwards. The history of population control, including the foundation of Planned Parenthood, is an ideologically diverse and multifaceted story. A proto-feminism that saw population control as a fundamental right of woman, was surely present in the early population control movement, but it was present alongside the ideological beliefs of Malthusianism, Social Darwinism and eugenics all that were understood in overtly classist and racist categories.
Many supporters of population control approached the movement from a mixture of beliefs. This might be seen in Henry H. Goddard’s The Rising Tide of Colour, famously cited in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Goddard combined Malthusian fears of overpopulation with the imperialist ideology of the ‘white man’s burden’ to motivate programs for the reduction of population in countries such as India. A similarly diverse mixture of beliefs can be seen at a conference to establish the Population Association for America, the invitees included birth control advocates such as Margret Sanger, a “full range of eugenicists… from the unrestrained to the temperate,” and immigration restrictionists including Robert Ward, one of the founders of the Immigration Restriction League.
For many to distinguish between ideologies would have seemed like splitting hairs. Eugenics and population control, for example, were often view as identical movements. By the end of the 1930s Henry Fairchild, latter a founder of Planned Parenthood and President of the American Eugenics Society, could state that the eugenics and birth control movements were “drawn so close together as to be almost indistinguishable.”
There was no real room in the population control movement for any “core principle,” on the contrary the foundation of Planned Parenthood was the logical end of many ideological principles. Thus in the writings of Margaret Sanger we can find a diverse mixture of ideological beliefs. In her 1920 book Woman and the New Race, Sanger argues that the birth control movement in proto-feministic terms suggesting it shall “set motherhood free… enable her to prevent bringing to birth children she does not want.” Sanger goes on to suggest that by emancipating mothers through birth control society shall also be fulfilling a Malthusian aim, “not permitting an increase of population we are not prepared to take car of,” and a eugenic aim, as birth control “withholds the unfit and brings forth the fit”.
On the other side of the Atlantic Marie Stopes shows a similar diversity of thought. In its first editorial Stope’s Birth Control News argued for population control understood as in the individual’s and in society’s own interest, appealing for “constructive birth control [which would] fill comfortable cradles and empty gutters.”
Stopes was also an admirer of the racial programs of both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War Stopes sent a copy of her volume of poetry Love Songs For Young Lovers to Adolf Hitler with the wish that he “find something to enjoy in the book”.
The diversity of the different ideological influences and motivations by which individuals supported the population control movement makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a historian to accurately measure the influence of any one ideological strain. Though it might be comforting for President Obama and the attendees of the 2013 Planned Parenthood Gala to see the eugenics, Malthusianism and racism of Margret Sanger’s writings as nothing more than the superficial language of her time to see it as so is frankly unhistorical.