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Was Planned Parenthood’s Founder Anti-Abortion?

Mar 27, 2018 / By: Michael Spielman
Category: Abortion History

Planned Parenthood runs the largest abortion business in America, and it’s not even close. Year after year, as U.S. abortion totals continue to decline, Planned Parenthood’s totals keep going up. In fiscal 2016, they ended the lives of 321,384 unborn children—which is roughly a third of the U.S. abortion total. You might be surprised to learn, then, that Planned Parenthood was founded by a woman who called abortion “that crime which all women in their souls rebel against.”1

Is it possible that Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood’s much-maligned founder, was actually anti-abortion? Is it possible that she roundly condemned any birth control method that interfered with the development of a fertilized ovum? Having now read the three massive volumes that make up The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, along with all of her pertinent articles and speeches, I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding “yes.” There are plenty of things for which we can criticize Margaret Sanger, but I don’t see that her position on abortion is one of them.

In a very real sense, Planned Parenthood was founded to combat abortion. When Sanger opened the doors to her first birth control clinic in 1916, she distributed flyers which read: "Mothers, Do not kill, do not take life, but prevent."2 Though actual figures were nonexistent, Sanger was convinced that huge numbers of clandestine abortions were taking place in America. She attributed this to a lack of contraceptive knowledge among working-class women. “A few simple words of advice,” Sanger maintained, “would avoid the horrible slaughter of abortion going on in this country today.”3

In speech after speech, the condemnation of abortion was a recurring talking point for Margaret Sanger. She described it as “dangerous and inhuman,”4 and insisted that only better access to contraceptives could spare the world from the “deteriorating and ghastly effects of abortion.”5 When a 1920 bill was brought before the German Reischstag to legalize abortion, Sanger called it a “most shocking proposal.”6 In 1923, after receiving a client’s veiled request for abortion, Sanger dispatched the following:

When you ask me the question "How can I bring myself around; I am pregnant two months," you are asking for abortion. Please understand that Birth Control, as I understand it, is never abortion. I do not approve of abortion, nor can I give the address of anyone who will perform this operation... The object of this movement is to help women avoid abortion and the dangers attending it.7

When Sanger’s sometime-nemesis Marie Stopes suggested that Sanger was sympathetic to abortion, Sanger quickly countered. "No one doubts of my views on the subject,” she wrote, “mainly because I have so strenuously attacked the abortionists and the Government for creating them.”8 Sanger confidently asserted in 1956 that she had “always condemned abortion.”9 Though some suggest Sanger’s opposition to abortion was feigned, in an effort to curry public favor for birth control, we can only judge someone on what they say and do. And Margaret Sanger consistently spoke and acted as someone who was opposed to abortion.

In 1942, the year that the American Birth Control League was renamed Planned Parenthood, the official book of medical policies included a provision, signed by Margaret Sanger, declaring that “no referral for abortion is to be made, either directly or indirectly.”10 Esther Katz, founder and director of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, believes that though Sanger sympathized with women seeking an abortion, “[she] was unwilling to jeopardize her broader efforts by openly providing abortion referrals or by allowing therapeutic abortions at the [clinic].”11 Because Margaret Sanger did make a moral allowance for therapeutic abortion, Katz maintains, “she did not interfere if ABCL staff members took it upon themselves to provide unofficial referrals.”12 We should not, however, read too much into this. “Although abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother,” Sanger argued, “the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious.”13

Margaret Sanger was also candid about the health risks of abortion. She noted that it was “a major cause of sterility”14 and declared it to be detrimental to a woman’s physical and mental health. “Abortions break down the health of the mother without preventing renewed pregnancy at an early date,” Sanger wrote in 1952. “Let us make an end to all this suffering, waste, enfeeblement and despair.”15 Some 35 years earlier, Sanger proclaimed abortion to be morally akin to infanticide. “Barbaric,” she called it, “the killing of babies.”16

In 1965, the year before Margaret Sanger died, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) internally redefined conception—so that birth control pills could be classified as contraceptives. Dementia had severely compromised Sanger’s mental capacity by this point, but she was already on record with regard to the difference between contraception and abortion. “If preventive means are not used and the sperm meets the ovum and development thus begins,” Sanger maintained, “any attempt at removing it or stopping its further growth is called abortion.”17

In light of this history, isn't it perversely ironic that Planned Parenthood now sells the very thing it was ostensibly founded to eliminate? Four years after Sanger’s death, Planned Parenthood performed its first abortion, making Margaret Sanger the mother of America’s birth control movement and the grandmother of its abortion movement. How can we give such an ignominious title to someone who publicly opposed abortion throughout her lifetime? Because Margaret Sanger was entirely wrong about the utopian benefits of birth control. Consider her promises:

[Abortion] will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception.18

Anyone who knows anything about either Birth Control or abortion knows that scientific Birth Control methods [will] do away with abortions which occur in appalling numbers in America every year.19

Birth Control will prevent abortion. It will do away with the practice of taking drugs and poisonous nostrums to end undesired pregnancies.20

Mothers will not submit to the murder of unborn children when they can control conception.21

Birth control has not eliminated abortion, not by a long shot. If anything, it paved the way for legal abortion by creating a grotesque intolerance for unplanned parenthood. When birth control fails, as it does with surprising frequency, a profusion of users now assume a moral right or duty to have an abortion. Much of the blame for this mindset can be laid at Sanger’s feet—who argued that unless pregnancy is explicitly desired and unless the child will be born healthy and wealthy, women have only two choices: birth control or abortion. What’s a woman to do, then, when birth control fails? “She will not bear more children than she can care for,” Sanger assured us. “And if she is denied the knowledge of the safe, harmless, scientific methods of Birth Control, she limits her family by means of abortion.”22

This is the same basic argument used by those who insist that the legality of abortion has no bearing on a woman’s willingness to choose abortion. If she can’t have a legal abortion, they tell us, she’ll have an illegal abortion—as if those are the only two options. Such thinking also mirrors an argument I heard recently from Michael Shermer, who smugly maintains that the only alternative to abortion is infanticide. Based on these rather hysterical assertions, you’d think that no one had ever parented an unplanned child, or placed a baby for adoption. Abortion and infanticide are not binary options!

For Margaret Sanger, abortion was the wolf at the door which only birth control could vanquish. Except it didn’t. Birth control hasn’t vanquished abortion, and now Planned Parenthood has invited the wolf inside—growing rich off the very thing it set out to destroy. Can you think of any other health organization selling itself out quite so grotesquely? It would be like the American Lung Association selling cigarettes or the Department of Health franchising McDonalds, except so much worse.

In 2015, The Honest Company came under fire for selling sunscreen products that purportedly didn’t work. How much more damning would this discovery have been if The Honest Company also had a financial interest in treating people for skin cancer?! That’s a conflict of interest that would never bear up under scrutiny, and yet Planned Parenthood’s dwarfs it by comparison. 

Planned Parenthood is like a dentist who tells his patients to eat all the candy they want, so long as they brush their teeth. Except of course that Planned Parenthood sells both the toothpaste and the fillings. Or we might compare them to a mechanic who sells new brakes (that are more than 90% effective!), and also happens to run the largest auto body repair shop in the country. Do you see the problem?  Planned Parenthood sells an abortion preventative that actually increases the behavior which leads to abortion. And guess what, they sell abortion too. 

Ideologically, Planned Parenthood has no business being in the abortion business. It strips them of all moral credibility. I can’t say for certain whether Margaret Sanger’s opposition to abortion was genuine or calculated, but even if Sanger was only playing a part, the end result is the same. Planned Parenthood reneged on its social promise. Planned Parenthood was sold as a means of eliminating abortion, and now Planned Parenthood sells abortion. Isn’t that indictment enough?

  1. Margaret Sanger, “Does the Public Want Birth Control?” True Confessions, April 1936.
  2. Margaret Sanger, flyer advertising birth control, April 1916.
  3. Margaret Sanger, “The Fight for Birth Control,” Birth Control News, July 1916.
  4. Margaret Sanger, “Asia Discovers Birth Control,” Reader’s Digest, July 1956.
  5. Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control and Women’s Health,” Birth Control Review, December 1917.
  6. Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control--The Fundamental Freedom,” Oklahoma State Register, December 1920.
  7. Margaret Sanger, 1923 letter to client, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 381.
  8. Margaret Sanger, 1915 letter to Marie Stopes, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 164.
  9. Margaret Sanger, “Asia Discovers Birth Control,” Reader’s Digest, July 1956.
  10. Mary Worley Compton (clinic director), 1942 letter to Margaret Sanger, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 120.
  11. Esther Katz, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 349.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control Advances: A Reply to the Pope,” Typed Article, 1931.
  14. Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control - A Changing World Attitude,” Typed Draft Speech, April 1937.
  15. Margaret Sanger, “The Humanity of Family Planning,” Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood, Report on Proceedings, November 1952.
  16. Margaret Sanger, “Hotel Brevoort Speech,” The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 178.
  17. Margaret Sanger, “Birth Control or Abortion?” Birth Control Review, December 1918.
  18. Margaret Sanger, Family Limitation, Revised, Eighth Edition, 1918.
  19. Margaret Sanger, “Are Birth Control Methods Injurious?” Birth Control Review, January 1919.
  20. Margaret Sanger, “A Better Race Through Birth Control” The Thinker, November 1923.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Margaret Sanger, “Prudence or Prudery in Sex Matters” Fairplay, October 1919.

Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.

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