“The Bible says, ‘Beware of false prophets,’” outgoing House Speaker John Boehner told Face the Nation host John Dickerson on September 27. Boehner was referring angrily to “people out there … spreading noise about how much can get done” and hoping to force a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood, an organization despised by many conservatives. Planned Parenthood has become a renewed target in the wake of widely viewed videos purporting to show the organization’s employees crassly discussing the procurement and sale of aborted fetal tissue. Boehner said many in his own Republican party “knew it was a fool’s errand” to promote a shutdown in an effort to force the federal government to stop funding Planned Parenthood—but pressure from uncompromising constituents in the anti-abortion camp made them do it anyway.
As predicted in the wake of Boehner’s resignation, the Senate and the House both passed a continuing resolution enabling the government to keep running until December 11. But that doesn’t mean the shutdown war is anywhere near resolved. Those same uncompromising foes of Planned Parenthood rant on social media, troll the comments section of news articles, and protest with pithy if frequently misleading slogans. They ignore or dismiss evidence that the videos themselves were heavily edited and portions of the transcripts fabricated to the point of discrediting the sting operation itself. Repeatedly, they equate Planned Parenthood and its supporters with Hitler.
Republican elected officials join the outrage chorus or else risk getting primaried out of the next election: Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards’ recent interrogation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is a case in point of the grandstanding deemed necessary to assuage the far-right electorate.
The ire against Planned Parenthood, while now focused on abortion, goes back nearly a century and is rooted in a generations-old loathing of “the mother of birth control” herself, Margaret Sanger. Sanger’s success in de-stigmatizing public talk about contraception and family planning (which she always disassociated from abortion, stressing that birth control access would reduce the abortion rate) and her dogged promotion of women’s equal rights have made her a hero to many people and a villain to others. The organization that she founded, the American Birth Control League, is a predecessor to what would eventually become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Critics in her own day reviled Sanger as selfish, immoral, and even diabolical; haters today, who incorrectly but persistently insist that Sanger was an advocate of abortion—about which she was, at most, ambivalent—are as likely to call her an “elitist bitch.”
Hatred of Sanger’s work has been fueled by the perception that she was a eugenicist, one whose real goal was the extermination or forced sterilization of those she deemed unfit or undesirable, especially black Americans. In recent years, presidential candidates—notably, African American candidates—seeking the Republican nomination have made this charge as if it were a proven fact. In 2011, Herman Cain told Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer that 75 percent of Sanger’s birth control clinics were “built in the black community” and that while Sanger didn’t use the actual word “genocide,” “she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.” In August, Ben Carson expanded on this theme when he said on Fox News:
Well, maybe I’m not objective when it comes to Planned Parenthood. But you know, I know who Margaret Sanger is, and I know that she believed in eugenics, and that she was not particularly enamored with black people. And one of the reasons that you find most of their clinics in black neighborhoods is so that you can find a way to control that population. And I think people should go back and read about Margaret Sanger, who founded this place—a woman who Hillary Clinton by the way says she admires. Look and see what many people in Nazi Germany thought about her.
If Cain and Carson have (as Washington Post “Fact Checker” Glenn Kessler confirmed) “wildly exaggerated” many facts to make their point, there is no doubt that racism is a stain on the early history of the birth control movement. This reality should never be discounted, for Sanger or any other leader: In fact, Sanger’s eugenic views during the 1920s were thoroughly in keeping with those of many other Americans, conservative and liberal alike, who wanted to see the populace strengthened and did not foresee the dire consequences that could and did come of scientific human breeding. A list of early eugenics supporters reads like a “who’s who” of early twentieth-century bigwigs: Psychologist G. Stanley Hall believed eugenics was “a legitimate new interpretation of our Christianity”; while health reformer John Harvey Kellogg, financier J.P. Morgan, industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Protestant minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, Quaker writer Rufus Jones, Rabbis Louis Mann and David de Sola Pool, Catholic reform leader Father John A. Ryan, and many more socially minded men and women worked, to varying degrees and at different moments, with the American Eugenics Society, drawn to what they considered a program of social reform. Some, like Ryan and other Catholics, withdrew support by 1930, when Pope Pius XI issued Casti Connubii and affirmed that eugenic sterilization violated natural law. Others, like Sanger, distanced themselves from portions of the older eugenic program and its potential excesses as the Nazis’ horrific genocide came to light. Plenty of white eugenics supporters were racists, but many of these reformers worked to dismantle racial inequality in hopes of “uplifting” Americans of African descent.
Sanger herself worked extensively with a number of African American leaders, and they with Planned Parenthood, on various social justice issues: As a few alert commentators recently pointed out, Rosa Parks, whom several presidential hopefuls recently picked as their choice for the first women to be on the U.S. paper currency, was an active advocate of Planned Parenthood. Researchers have shown the many ways in which African Americans have supported and participated in the birth control movement throughout all stages of its history, sometimes independently of white dominated organizations and other times as part of them; while there have always been African American critics of the movement, there have also been advocates who do not regard the movement as inherently or unredeemably racist. When he accepted Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger award in 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed the importance of family planning to white and black Americans alike: “[T]ogether we can and should unite our strength for the wise preservation, not of races in general, but of the one race we all constitute—the human race.”
Sanger’s contempt for the Roman Catholic hierarchy has also fueled conservative Christian rage against her. She knew that church leaders taught that birth control destroyed the morality of women and the structure of home life, and this was a position that feminists such as Sanger found deeply misogynistic. After New York Catholic officials thrust obstacles in the way of her birth control campaign there, she developed a very successful strategy: partner with Protestant and Jewish leaders on birth control, stoking the long antipathy between Protestants and Catholics to win Protestant favor for her cause. It worked, as mainline Protestant leaders rapidly saw it her way and began openly to advocate for access to birth control among married couples. Sanger never tired of vividly lambasting Catholic leaders, in public and in print, for the great disservice she felt they did to their own people by forbidding contraception and ignoring the plight of overworked, exhausted mothers and fathers and the sprawling families they were forced to bring into the world, whether they wanted so many children or not. No wonder she is the bête noire of many Catholics today, despite the fact that the vast majority of American Catholic women have, for decades, used birth control and approved of its availability.
It is true that Planned Parenthood, like the U.S. federal government and many state governments, was heavily involved in population control programs here and across the world whose practices of forced sterilization are today considered appalling, even by experts still worried about global overpopulation and its effects on poverty rates and climate change. The wretched history of national efforts at population control has been well told and acknowledged, though many remain uninformed about this history’s scope and scale. But it is as disingenuous to equate today’s Planned Parenthood with forced sterilization as it is to equate today’s Roman Catholic Church with the Vatican’s pro-fascism and anti-Semitism during the same era. The moral terrain we need to reckon with now, in determining what to do with Planned Parenthood, pertains to its activity and impact in our own time.
There have been many conservative officials, at all levels of government, who affirm that they are strongly pro-life and would like to see abortion heavily restricted, yet who also promote the life-saving benefits of medical research using embryonic stem cells. Researchers have studied fetal tissue since the 1930s; its many useful contributions include vaccines for polio, rubella, and chicken pox. Planned Parenthood has been legally procuring such tissue from legal abortions for some time now, in the name of such medical research. This doesn’t mean the ethical issues no longer warrant scrutiny or debate, but the history may suggest that we should explore them with a long and comprehensive view rather than peevishly shutting down the government for short-term glory. The organization’s leaders also like to say that, even if you oppose abortion as inherently morally wrong, surely you cannot oppose the life-giving healthcare services—cancer screenings, physical exams, gynecological care, birth control, adoption referrals—that Planned Parenthood provides to women, including low-income women who would not have access to such services otherwise.
But we never quite get at the contemporary moral terrain, because of the adamancy and fixed conviction of a very vocal minority that Planned Parenthood is a deceitful, eugenicist, and murderous organization in league with the Devil herself. The current stand-off over the procurement of fetal tissue is the product of very old convictions about Sanger and Planned Parenthood: that the real goal was extermination of those deemed unfit or racially inferior, and that a vicious anti-Catholic prejudice drove the birth control campaign. Feminist supporters today often cannot persuade opponents even to consider the possibility that Planned Parenthood may be a worthy, if not necessary healthcare provider for women—or to acknowledge the moral complexity of these many intersecting issues—because they too are believed to be either deceitful or hoodwinked, if not somehow both.
Responding to Boehner’s resignation, the liberal pundit Paul Begala predicted on CNN that the next House speaker will be “a prisoner of the most extreme elements of his party.” Begala said, “There’s two kinds of political leaders, just like there’s two kinds of religious leaders: those who hunt down heretics, and those who seek out converts.” It’s tough to stay hopeful when a narrow minority in one party seems bent on spreading mistruths and wreaking chaos, and the stakes are high, even beyond a government shutdown. But we need to try. To forsake all hope in facing the paradoxes and inconvenient truths of our history is to invite the false prophets and heretic hunters to take charge.
Marie Griffith is editor of Religion & Politics.