“The removal of Margaret Sanger’s name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood’s contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color,” Karen Seltzer, chair of the board at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, said in a statement. “Margaret Sanger’s concerns and advocacy for reproductive health have been clearly documented, but so too has her racist legacy.”
The New York chapter, which is one of the largest affiliates of Planned Parenthood, also announced it is working to change an honorary street sign that marks “Margaret Sanger Square” at Bleecker and Mott streets in Manhattan.
The efforts are the first of many “organizational shifts” to confront Sanger’s legacy and institutional racism more broadly, the chapter said in a statement. Last month, the chapter’s chief executive, Laura McQuade, was ousted from her job after hundreds of former and current employees signed public letters accusing McQuade, who is white, of abusive behavior and a failure to address complaints about systemic racism, pay inequity and a lack of upward mobility for black employees — allegations McQuade denied.
“Planned Parenthood, like many other organizations that have existed for a century or more, is reckoning with our history, and working to address historical inequities to better serve patients and our mission,” Melanie Roussell Newman, senior vice president for communications and culture at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement, commending the New York chapter for its decision.
The announcement about Sanger marks a dramatic shift in the organization’s relationship with its founder, even as it has long acknowledged that Sanger’s views were problematic. In 2016, Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary, the organization published a lengthy fact sheet about Sanger, outlining her views on eugenics and describing her as “layered and complex” while defending her contributions.
Like many of her contemporaries at the time, Sanger supported the belief that it was possible to biologically create a better human race, said Esther Katz, a retired associate professor of history at New York University and founder of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project. “But by better, she meant healthier, not morally better,” Katz said.
Sanger supported the sterilization of some people with mental illnesses, Katz said. She also believed that if a woman gave birth to a large number of children, the latter children would be weaker. And to advance the birth control movement, she spoke with the Ku Klux Klan. But her views and actions have also often been taken out of context to claim Sanger wanted to “erase the black race,” Katz said.
“Margaret Sanger has been used as a tool for the anti-reproductive rights movement,” Katz said. “She was not trying to eliminate the African American race from this country.”
Sanger worked with black leaders and ministers to give black women the same access to birth control as white women, Katz said. She was single-mindedly focused on making birth control cheap and accessible to everybody.
“The problem with Sanger was she was so single-minded that she was willing to align herself with anybody,” Katz said. “These are problematic positions. She did speak to the Klan. But I think obliterating her ... doesn’t allow us to discuss this in any way or debate it.”
In recent years, antiabortion activists and conservatives have often brought up Sanger’s views on eugenics to criticize Planned Parenthood and the abortion rights movement, even though Sanger did not advocate for abortion rights. In 2015, a group of conservatives and antiabortion activists unsuccessfully called for a bust of Sanger to be removed from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
In an opinion last year, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas emphasized Sanger’s eugenicist views and the fact that she opened a birth-control clinic in then-majority black Harlem. He implied that Sanger wanted to restrict the growth of the black community, which multiple scholars said was misleading. Ben Carson, now U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, has made similar claims.
Planned Parenthood and its founder have often become inaccurately intertwined in conversations about sterilization abuse that occurred in hospitals in the 1960s and later, abuse that disproportionately affected black and indigenous women, said Ayah Nuriddin, a PhD candidate in the department of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University who is writing her thesis on eugenics and the African American community. Nuriddin said it’s important to distinguish between Sanger’s work and views and later state-sponsored sterilization.
“She’s racist, she’s eugenicist,” Nuriddin said. “That does not make her unique among her contemporaries in this period. I think there’s sometimes this notion that she’s somehow superlative in her racism, and that’s simply not the case.”
Merle McGee, chief equity and engagement officer for Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, said the organization has been having public conversations about Sanger’s complicated legacy for many years, and particularly since 2014.
“The Sanger legacy unchecked or unmet with a reckoning has been weaponized against women of color, and has effectively hampered our ability to be in a right relationship with women of color,” McGee said. “And we have left women of color to grapple with the totality of Sanger’s legacy.”
But taking Sanger’s name off a building does not mean the organization is completely disconnecting itself from its founder, she said.
“What we are saying is we are not going to center and essentialize Margaret Sanger as all good or all bad,” McGee said.
Nuriddin agreed it was important not to consider Sanger as either “a hero or a villain.”
“I think it’s also important to recognize that taking a name off or taking a statue down is not the whole story,” Nuriddin added, “and it’s not a substitute for reckoning with a complicated history.”
Read more Retropolis: