— GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson, interview on Fox News, Aug. 12, 2015
We have delved before into the question of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, eugenics and her attitude about African-Americans, during the 2012 election season when Herman Cain made similar remarks suggesting Planned Parenthood targets blacks. The 2011 fact check came under attack for allegedly sugarcoating Sanger’s record, in particular for some language on her paternalistic view of blacks that we later acknowledged was a “poor choice of words.”
Carson’s remarks are less inflammatory than Cain’s, but the implication is similar: The claim is that Sanger (1879-1966), who founded what is now Planned Parenthood, was racist and Planned Parenthood thus has a deliberate policy of trying to “control” the black population by placing “most of their clinics in black neighborhoods.” Carson, a neurosurgeon, also added a Nazi connection: “Look and see what many people in Nazi Germany thought about her.”
Let’s examine the evidence again.
Sanger and blacks
Carson’s campaign initially sent us a blog item with alleged quotes from Sanger — “colored people are like human weeds” — that turned out to be unverified and false. The quotes appear to arise from statements that were more general in nature, though most readers would find them objectionable today: “How are we to breed a race of human thoroughbreds unless we follow the same plan? We must make this country into a garden of children instead of a disorderly back lot overrun with human weeds.” (1924)
Starting in 1916, Sanger’s clinics at first were aimed mainly at poor immigrant women. The first clinic was in a neighborhood “populated largely by Italians and Eastern European Jews,” according to the 2010 book “Birth Control on Main Street,” by Cathy Moran Hajo. Sanger did not open a Harlem clinic until the 1930s, even though infant mortality rates there were similar.
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.
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 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 1939 letter. “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.”
(This inartfully written passage is frequently taken out of context to suggest Sanger was seeking to exterminate blacks.)
Sanger and the Nazis
Sanger was a supporter of now-discredited eugenics movement, which aimed to improve humans by either encouraging or discouraging reproduction based on genetic traits.
At one point, in 1934, she even crafted a proposed law that included this provision: “Feeble-minded persons, habitual congenital criminals, those afflicted with inheritable disease, and others found biologically unfit by authorities qualified judge should be sterilized or, in cases of doubt, should be so isolated as to prevent the perpetuation of their afflictions by breeding.” Sanger said she wanted “to give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization,” which some have interpreted as a reference to concentration camps.
Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany also embraced the principles of eugenics—and put them to genocidal use. But any real link between Sanger and the Nazis, let alone praise of the Nazis for Sanger, is rather tenuous.
Carson’s campaign pointed to an alleged connection between Sanger and Ernest Rudin, a German eugenicist who oversaw the mass sterilization policies of Nazi Germany. Carson’s campaign said she published an article by Rudin in the magazine Birth Control Review in 1932, but she had resigned as editor several years before that particular issue was published.
The campaign also noted that she appointed to the board of the Birth Control League Lathrop Stoddard, a eugenicist who had close ties to the Nazis and even met with Hitler.
Yet one of the most thorough looks at the connection between American eugenicists and Germany Nazis, “The Nazi Connection,” by German professor Stefan Kuehl, makes no mention of Sanger (though Stoddard is featured). Sanger is briefly mentioned in another of one of Kuehl’s books, “For the Betterment of the Race,” mostly in connection with her efforts to assemble an international conference of birth control specialists to combat overpopulation.
“She was very positive about eugenically motivated sterilization,” Kuehl said in an e-mail. But he said “the typical mistake is linking eugenics in general too closely to Nazi race policy. There have been very different strands of eugenics – national socialist, racist, liberal, socialist, Catholic, Jewish, and so on.”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum says that “Nazi Germany was not the first or only country to sterilize people considered ‘abnormal.’ Before Hitler, the United States led the world in forced sterilizations. Between 1907 and 1939, more than 30,000 people in twenty-nine states were sterilized, many of them unknowingly or against their will.”
Sanger in 1938 appeared to speak positively about the German program undertaken by the Nazis. “Reports in medical journals state that the indications laid down in the German law are being carefully observed. These are gongenital feeble-mindedness; schizophrenia, circular insanity; heredity epilepsy; hereditary chorea (Huntington’s); hereditary blindness or deafness; grave hereditary bodily deformity and chronic alcoholism,” she said. “The rights of the individual could be equally well safeguarded here, but in no case should the rights of society, or which he or she is a member, be disregarded.”
Yet in 1939, she wrote that before Hitler came to power, “I was one of the few Americans who joined the Anti-Nazi Committee and gave money, my name and any influence I had with writers and others, to combat Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.” She added that “my three books were destroyed [burned] and have not been allowed to circulate in Germany.”
Planned Parenthood and black neighborhoods
While the two previous issues relate to interpretation of history—about which people can disagree—at least here we can deal with hard facts. Are “most” of Planned Parenthood’s clinics in black neighborhoods?
The available data, from both sources that oppose and favor abortion rights, says this is false.
A 2011 report by Life Dynamics, which opposes abortion, used Census data to determine the African-American and Hispanic population of each zipcode where Planned Parenthood has an office. The report was intended to show that the abortion clinics are placed mostly in areas where black residents exceed the average black population of the state.
But when you look closely at the data, it turns out that there are only about 110 locations (out of about 800) where the black population exceeds 25 percent of the overall population. That certainly does not support the claim that “most” clinics are in “black neighborhoods.”
Separately, in 2011, the Guttmacher Institute surveyed all abortion providers (about 1,700), including Planned Parenthood, and found that 60 percent are in majority-white neighborhoods — and that fewer than one in ten abortion providers are located in neighborhoods where more than half of the residents are black. The statistics did not change when the numbers were adjusted for nearly 600 providers that conduct more than 400 abortions a year.
Still, there is clear evidence that blacks are more likely to get an abortion than whites. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the abortion rate for black women is almost four times higher than for white. The reasons for this disparity are not well understood, though some researchers cite economic issues; the location of abortion clinics does not appear to be a factor.
The Pinocchio Test
Taken together, Carson’s remarks suggest that Planned Parenthood, as a result of deliberate policies set in place by its founder, targets blacks for abortions. But the evidence shows that a relatively small percentage of clinics are in black-majority neighborhoods — or even in neighborhoods where blacks are more than one-quarter of the population.
Sanger’s embrace of eugenics — and her statements in support of sterilization — may be abhorrent today. Her attitudes on race may appear antiquated. But there is little evidence that she targeted blacks for “elimination” or embraced the Nazis, who took eugenics to a horrific extreme.
Some readers may believe the historical record is even more damning for Sanger. But the data on where clinics are located is pretty clear. Mixing all of these elements together, with little basis in fact, earns Carson Four Pinocchios.
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