Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

July 6, 2006

Open Letter to Sharon Hughes: Correcting the Record on Margaret Sanger

by @ 9:53 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

Sharon Hughes, of an eponymous blog subtitled “Changing Worldviews”, has a radio talk show and podcast in which she comments on a predictable range of rignt-wing issues. She recently used her extensive media presence to retail a tired old misquote of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.

This quote – one half of one sentence from a letter about setting up birth control education programs in the black community, has been circulating around the anti-choice community for years. The purported interpretation is that Sanger was deliberately planning a genocide against blacks – and announced this in a letter to a black doctor, seeking another black doctor and black minister to carry out her nefarious program. Aside from the sheer idiocy of the claim, they never even quote the entire sentence, because that alone would make it clear how absurdly false the accusation is. Still, with the complete lack of critical faculty that marks the right wing, the half-quote and its gasping mis-reading are taken at face value wherever they are presented. Hughes is merely the latest vector.

Here is Huges revealing “Planned Parenthood’s Secret Agenda” on her blog:

The abortion industry’s secret – Margaret Sanger, the Founder of Planned Parenthood shockingly said, “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”

This is outrageous and makes me angry every time I think about this sinister agenda . . .

[boldface original to Hughes]

Assuming that she was merely in error, and not, of course, in any way telling deliberate falsehoods (however obvious), I took the opportunity to write her a polite and supportive letter explaining the misunderstanding and encouraging her to issue a correction on the radio, podcast, and blog venues in which she had originally slandered Sanger. Since she is naturally concerned only with telling the truth on these important issues, I’m sure she’ll get right on it. For the record, however, my letter – with links to supporting material and source references – is below the jump.

In the meantime, let’s count the days until the corrections are made!

Dear Ms. Hughes:

I’m sure your interest in the history of Planned Parenthood includes a desire to know and speak the truth. You will be interested to learn that your recent podcast and blog post regarding the supposedly “shocking” quote you give from Margaret Sanger was in error.

The context of the letter from which you quote only half of one sentence (“We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population”) is as follows:

Margaret Sanger to Clarence Gamble, MD, December 1939:

“It seems to me from my experience . . . in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors, they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table. . . . They do not do this with the white people, and if we can train the Negro doctor at the clinic, he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching results. . . . His work, in my opinion, should be entirely with the Negro profession and the nurses, hospital, social workers, as well as the County’s white doctors. His success will depend upon his personality and his training by us.

The minister’s work is also important, and also he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation, as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs.”

The letter makes it clear that they not only had the support of the black medical and religious community, but were actively working to dispel misstatements of the purpose of birth control advocacy – ironically, the same misstatement you make by misquoting her concern for such falsehoods! Sanger was not planning to exterminate blacks – a plan for which she would hardly have hired a black doctor and minister, and openly talked about training them in that work; she was attempting to prevent people from falsely saying she was going to exterminate blacks. Unfortunately, that attempt failed, as you are no doubt embarrassed to realize.

Appended below are other facts about Sanger’s relationship with the black community – note especially Martin Luther King, Jr.’s explicit parallel between the movement for reproductive freedom and the civil rights movement and his statement that Sanger’s nonviolent precedent positively affected his own work, as well as Sanger’s support from, and close cooperation with, major figures in the black and human rights communities, including Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, and black institutions such as The Amsterdam News and The Abyssinian Baptist Church.

It is true that Sanger supported the “positive eugenics” movement of her day – encouraging healthy couples to have children – but she vigorously opposed “negative eugenics” programs of sterlization or coercion not to have children. She explicitly insisted that every woman, without exception, must have the right to determine whether to have children, and how many. She thus made birth control and women’s reproductive autonomy one of the strongest forces against forced sterilization or negative eugenics.

The Planned Parenthood Web site from which this material is taken has extensive evidence, including full citations to historical works and original documents from which you can confirm these facts. (see below)

Having been informed of the inaccuracy of your interpretation of the Sanger quote you used, and of your general remarks about Sanger’s intentions in founding Planned Parenthood, and being dedicated as I’m sure you are to the same goals that Margaret Sanger pioneered – freedom from reproductive coercion, and truth in discussing reproductive issues – I am certain you will be eager to retract your statements and correct the misimpression you may have given. I will look forward to your upcoming podcast and blog post correcting these errors and setting the record straight. I am glad to have been of service to that end.


/s/ Kevin T. Keith

The supporting material referred to is below. It, and more, can be found here, with – as noted above – extensive citations.


Harlem — 1930
In 1930, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem that sought to enlist support for contraceptive use and to bring the benefits of family planning to women who were denied access to their city’s health and social services. Staffed by a black physician and black social worker, the clinic was endorsed by The Amsterdam News (the powerful local newspaper), the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Urban League, and the black community’s elder statesman, W.E.B. DuBois (Chesler, 1992).

Negro Project — 1939-1942
Beginning in 1939, DuBois served on the advisory council for Sanger’s “Negro Project,” which was designed to serve African Americans in the rural South. The advisory council called it a “unique experiment in race-building and humanitarian service to a race subjected to discrimination, hardship, and segregation (Chesler, 1992).”

In a letter to philanthropist Albert Lasker, from whom she hoped to raise funds for the project, Sanger wrote that she wanted to help

“a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped to a large measure by a ‘caste’ system that operates as an added weight upon their efforts to get a fair share of the better things in life. To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation” (Sanger, 1939, July).

In 1942, she wrote again to Lasker, saying

“I think it is magnificent that we are in on the ground floor, helping Negroes to control their birth rate, to reduce their high infant and maternal death rate, to maintain better standards of health and living for those already born, and to create better opportunities for those who will be born” (Sanger, 1942).

Other leaders of the African-American community who were involved in the project included Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

The Negro Project was also endorsed by prominent white Americans who were involved in social justice efforts at this time, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the most visible and compassionate supporter of racial equality in her era; and the medical philanthropists, Albert and Mary Lasker, whose financial support made the project possible (Chesler, 1992).

Division of Negro Service — 1940-1943
Sanger’s Birth Control Federation of America, which became Planned Parenthood Federation of American in 1942, established a Division of Negro Service to oversee the Negro Project and to implement Sanger’s educational outreach to African Americans nationally. Sponsored by Sanger’s fundraising efforts and directed by Florence Rose, the division provided black organizations across the country with Planned Parenthood literature, set up local educational exhibits, facilitated local and national public relations, and employed an African-American doctor, Mae McCarroll, to lobby medical groups and teach contraceptive techniques to other black doctors.

Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1966, the year Sanger died, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said

“There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. . . . Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her” (King, 1966).

14 Responses to “Open Letter to Sharon Hughes: Correcting the Record on Margaret Sanger”

  1. Shelley Says:

    Hey Keith, nice job! I get really sick of people using nefarious means to prove their point. Disagree with PP, fine – but don’t lie about your reasons. I’ve written to Dawn Eden when she misinterprets PP information or lies about their literature. Sadly it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

  2. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    Nothing does, with Dawn Eden. I’m not holding my breath on this one, either. But we’ll see . . .

    Thanks for writing!

  3. tgirsch Says:

    You should cross-post this to Lean Left.

  4. djw Says:

    I’ve always wondered whether the anti-choice attack on Sanger was 90% bullshit or 100. Another data point for the latter; thanks!

  5. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    Yep – the amount of utter falsity circulated about Sanger, often in garbled screeds copied verbatim from one Web site to another, is staggering. The Planned Parenthood link above has a list of common misquotes and their actual context, but the range of slanders is enormous.

    Amanda at Pandagon has some good background on the context in which Sanger worked and the reasons for her policies, including some that are more controversial today. Her comments thread also has a good discussion of the reason why none of this matters: the issue is reproductive freedom, not the personal beliefs or statements of one person 80 years ago.

  6. The Grouch Says:

    Well, I’ll certainly be reading this site after looking at this post and others. Reproductive ethics is a particularly important subject for me.

    Although, I’m not much of a consequentialist. I actually have (gasp!) deontological leanings.

  7. aspazia Says:

    Excellent letter and thank you for publishing this. I too have always wondered why the wingnuts call Sanger a genocidal freak. As I remember it, Sanger was opposed to abortion her whole life, right?

    Great blog. I am glad I found it. I will keep reading!

  8. zombieprincess Says:

    excellent work. did she even bother to respond to your letter? btw, your blog is officially going on my “favorites” list. thank you for being awesome!

  9. Sufficient Scruples » Blog Archive » Abortion: History and Attitudes over Time Says:

    […] Making with the sorely overdue link-love: two months ago, Amanda Marcotte (of Pandagon, and the best thing that ever happened to John Edwards) linked my prior post on right-wing propaganda about Margaret Sanger (as a way of attacking Planned Parenthood). She points out the fact that, in Sanger’s day, PP was actually anti-abortion (largely for reasons of the relative safety of the procedure, much lower then than now), and that the wingers seem to have no conception of the irony of their slanders. […]

  10. tony Says:

    is there any other animal that kills it’s own children ? if we saw dogs killing their unborn puppies wouldn’t we be rightfully horrified ? but so many who rightfully fight against war and the death penalty support abortion ? the same kind of hypocrisy is seen by prolife folks who support war and the death penalty….but the lives of infants ? for God’s sake…9 months is know to be murder…and so is 8, 7, or 6 months…is the only sure fire way to control venereal disease, the self control of abstinence ? but somehow those who practice this form of birth control and disease avoidance are ridiculed by the media ? white is black and night is day for such fools

  11. Sophie Says:

    Very good article.
    I have been researching information on Sharon Hughes–after having the misfortune to attend a “support the troops,” event heavily promoted by Hughes, and held at a Petaluma CA church on Sept. 10, 2011.
    After looking at Sharon Hughes website I realized that the “troops,” event was in reality something of a “feel-good” facade to lend credibility to Hughes and her husband’s right wing nonsense. She did not display her true colors at this event–just prattled on about God and country and her special claim to American patriotism.
    Her anti-liberal, anti-choice, etc., blog posts are difficult to read.
    Good to see this blog is still going strong-
    Sophie Edwards

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