To a modern American Margaret Sanger’s courage and importance can be hard to understand. She lived at a time when condoms and diaphragms were the only forms of birth control in existence and they were illegal in the United States. Birth control was considered immoral and advocating for it made you look like some kind of a sex fiend to many people. In fact, the view of birth control in the early twentieth century is instructive to the current fight over contraception. Then most people were perfectly willing to say that they opposed it because it let women enjoy sex without the burden of childbirth. Fewer people will admit that today, but I suspect it still underlies modern opposition to birth control.

Today, however, something like 98% of women use some form of birth control. In Sanger’s day that number would have been tiny. Sanger saw the effects of this first hand. Her mother had 11 children and 7 miscarriages, which took a terrible toll on her health and Sanger blamed all those pregnancies (and her father) for her death. Later Sanger became a nurse and saw many poor women patients in trauma due to illegal and unsafe abortions. Eventually she quit nursing and dedicated her life to making birth control available and effective. She started a number of clinics that would become Planned Parenthood with the purpose of providing birth control and was arrested for distributing diaphragms.

Eventually, largely due to Sanger’s work, the Comstock laws that made birth control illegal were repealed. Sanger was still unsatisfied because the only method of birth control that was controlled by women, the diaphragm, was awkward and difficult to use. She spurred and helped finance the research that led to the creation of the birth control pill. So if you’ve ever used a birth control of any kind, you owe Margaret Sanger a debt of gratitude for fighting to make it legal and easily acceptable. If you’ve used the pill you also should be grateful to her that it exists at all. And if you or anyone you care about has ever taken advantage of the wide range of health care services Planned Parenthood has made available to people who otherwise could not afford them, thank Margaret Sanger.

In the analysis of any historical figure one can find ideas they held that we clearly consider odious today. I’m a firm believer that history should be taken warts and all, but I also tend to think we shouldn’t judge past figures on present standards and that we shouldn’t throw out the positive legacy of a person because they were the product of a less enlightened time. Margaret Sanger actually fairs pretty well on this on any considered analysis of historical scholarship. Unfortunately, she is also the victim of a concerted effort to smear her legacy by a group of people who don’t like Planned Parenthood. To advance this agenda they take her statements out of context and in some cases, like Herman Cain, outright lie about her record. I’m not going to go into great detail on this, but what you need to know is that Margaret Sanger was associated to some extent to the eugenics movement, as were an extraordinary number of other progressive reformers of the time. They suffered from a gross misunderstanding of science and an excess of zeal to improve human life. Sanger’s involvement had nothing whatsoever to do with racism and, while she might have spoken in the language of a more racially insensitive time, her views on race were quite advanced for that time. The historical evidence absolutely shows that there is no evidence of her ever harboring any desire or plan to eliminate African Americans. Here is a good, brief debunking of such claims and here are three more sources on the subject.

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