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Herman Cain’s rewriting of birth-control history

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HANDOUT/REUTERS Bob Schieffer: OK. I want to ask you, since we're on the subject of abortion, there was, at one point back there when the question of Planned Parenthood came up, and you said that it was not Planned Parenthood, it was really planned genocide because you said Planned Parenthood was trying to put all these centers into the black communities because they wanted to kill black babies --

Herman Cain Yes.

Schieffer:  -- before they were born. Do you still stand by that?

Cain: I still stand by that.

Schieffer: Do you have any proof that that was the objective of Planned Parenthood?

Cain: If people go back and look at the history and look at Margaret Sanger's own words, that's exactly where that came from. Look up the history. So if you go back and look up the history -- secondly, look at where most of them were built; 75 percent of those facilities were built in the black community -- and Margaret Sanger’s own words, she didn’t use the word "genocide," but she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.

Schieffer: So you would not see any advantage to having young mothers get counsel and advice that Planned Parenthood could give them? I mean, with so many black babies born out of wedlock --

Cain:  There are a lot of centers that offer sincere counseling rather than Planned Parenthood claiming to be those centers when, in fact, they would rather for the young lady to come in and say they want to get an abortion and facilitate that. Plenty of centers out there genuinely do that. What I'm saying is Planned Parenthood isn’t sincere about wanting to try to counsel them not to have abortions.

— exchange on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” October 30, 2011

There’s a lot to chew over in this conversation between “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer and GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain, in which Cain tried to emphasize his opposition to abortion rights after giving contradictory answers the week before. Given the emotions involved in the abortion debate, we venture into this issue with trepidation.

 But we are interested in historical accuracy, and Cain urged people to “go back and look at the history and look at Margaret Sanger’s own words” to find the evidence that she wanted to “kill black babies.”

 So let’s examine what the founder of Planned Parenthood actually said, and whether 75 percent of Planned Parenthood’s facilities were built in African American communities. (The Cain campaign did not respond to a request for clarification about whether he was speaking about the past or currently, so we will examine both.)

 

The Facts

 Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was a birth-control activist who founded what is now known as Planned Parenthood. Birth control — a phrase Sanger coined — was illegal in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, and a major goal was to make it available to all women, not just the rich who could afford devices purchased in Europe.

As with any historical figure, it is important to place Sanger’s views and attitudes in the context of her times. For the period, she would likely be considered a racial pioneer; under today’s standards, she would appear to have a paternalistic attitude toward African Americans. Sanger also was linked to the now discredited eugenics movement, which aimed to improve humans by either encouraging or discouraging reproduction based on genetic traits.

 Still, eugenics enjoyed wide acceptance in the early 20th century, advocated by dignitaries such as Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell. It was certainly seen as less controversial than birth control at the time. (The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, even ruled in 1927 that Virginia could sterilize a white woman considered an imbecile.)

 “There is no denying that she allowed herself to become caught up in the eugenic zeal of the day and occasionally used language open to far less laudable interpretations,” including at one point saying birth control would lead to the creation of a “race of thoroughbreds,” wrote Sanger’s biographer, Ellen Chesler, in “Woman of Valor.” (Chesler is now on the national board of Planned Parenthood.)

 More recently, within the black community — starting apparently with the Black Panthers — there emerged a theory that birth control was akin to genocide. If you Google across the Internet, you will find many references by abortion opponents (often African American) linking alleged statements by Sanger, eugenics and something called the “Negro Project” into a tidy package that seeks to discredit Sanger.

 But don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. The most damning quote by Sanger has been taken out of context. Meanwhile, a number of doctoral dissertations have closely examined the early days of Planned Parenthood and its relationship with the African American community, and found nothing to confirm these allegations.

 For instance, Jessie May Rodrique, in a dissertation for the University of Massachusetts examining the 1918-1942 period, concluded: “Afro-Americans of all classes not only supported the idea of birth control but were also a significant force in shaping the national birth control debate, educating their communities and delivering contraceptives to women…. While the black and white communities often worked together to provide services to black women in many locations throughout the country, Afro-Americans worked independently of the national, white dominated birth control organizations.” 

 Another dissertation — published as the book “Birth Control on Main Street,” by Cathy Moran Hajo — found that in the 1916-1939 period, white activists were more likely to exclude African Americans from clinics, rather than include them. There were some half-hearted efforts to create African American clinics, but white activists actually gave little or no assistance. “Whatever the activists’ personal beliefs about race may have been, there was no grand program to exterminate nonwhites or the poor,” Hajo concluded.

What about Cain’s claim that Sanger wanted to “kill black babies” and thus spoke of “preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born?” Starting in 1916, Sanger’s clinics at first were aimed mainly at poor immigrant women; a Harlem clinic was opened in the 1930s. In the late 1930s, Sanger began an effort to bring the clinics to the rural south, in what was called “The Negro Project.”

 Sanger recruited a who’s who of black leaders to support the effort and, in letters to the project’s director, urged that white men who were outsiders should not run the clinics. She said the effort would gain more credibility with greater community involvement, given natural suspicions.

 “The minister's work is also important and he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach,” Sanger wrote in a letter in 1939. “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 to any of their more rebellious members.”

 In that context, the sentence, while inartfully written, does not back up Cain’s claim. (We received no further evidence from the Cain campaign.)

 Planned Parenthood acknowledged Monday that some of Sanger’s statements were problematic, but said they were not relevant today.

 

“Planned Parenthood’s mission for 95 years has been to provide affordable health care regardless of income level, race or ethnic background. Planned Parenthood has a long history of condemning racism and opposes discrimination in all forms. Margaret Sanger worked for social and racial justice at a time when segregation was the law of the land. She was invited by African American leaders to help provide health care to women in the African American community and her work was praised by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,” said Veronica Byrd, director of African American media. “For all her positive work, Margaret Sanger made statements some 80 years ago that were wrong then and are wrong now. Those statements have no bearing on the high quality health care Planned Parenthood provides today.” 

 Cain also claimed that 75 percent of Planned Parenthood’s clinics were built in African American communities. That is clearly incorrect historically, but is that true today?

 Tait Sye, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, said that 73 percent of Planned Parenthood’s 800 facilities are in rural areas or what are known as Health Professional Shortage Areas, defined as areas with “too few primary care providers, high infant mortality, high poverty and/or high elderly population.” In other words, clinics are opened in areas of medical need.

Clearly, not all of these would be in minority areas, so Cain’s figure is obviously much too high. Indeed, the Guttmacher Institute — which supports abortion rights — earlier this year calculated that fewer than one in 10 of all abortion clinics (totaling about 1,800 in 2008)  were located in predominantly African American neighborhoods. UPDATE: A reader sent us a copy of a very interesting report done by a conservative group that uses Census data to determine the African-American and Hispanic population of each zipcode where Planned Parenthood has an office. Digging into the data, we think this also undercuts Cain’s assertion, since we count only about 110 locations (out of about 800) where the black population exceeds 25 percent of the overall population. (Recall that Cain said the centers were placed in “the black community.”) The report takes a different spin on the data the researchers uncovered, and so readers can judge for themselves.

 Black women do have much higher abortion rates than white women, but that is linked to the fact that they have much higher rates of unintended pregnancies — not where clinics are located.

 

The Pinocchio Test

 No matter what you think of abortion, it seems pretty clear that Cain is spouting historical fiction. There is no evidence that Sanger ever sought to kill black babies, either through the Negro Project or any other endeavor. Cain’s claim that three-quarters of Planned Parenthood’s facilities are in black neighborhoods also appears wildly exaggerated.

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