The White Supremacist History of Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes and the Abortion Movement

Opinion   |   Liam Gibson   |   Sep 19, 2022   |   7:07PM   |   London, England

On 14 September 1879, Margaret Higgins, the sixth of 11 children in an Irish-American family was born in upstate New York. At least this is the date on which historians believe she was born since in later life Margaret Higgins, better known by her married name — Sanger, was obsessed with concealing her true age. She repeatedly changed her records and even altered the inscription in her family’s Bible.[1]

Sanger, who had abandoned her Catholic faith at an early age, was drawn into revolutionary politics and became vehemently opposed to marriage, Christian morality and family life. In 1914, Sanger came into conflict with US authorities for her violation of obscenity laws. Her newspaper The Woman Rebel, which had the motto “No Gods! No Masters!”, promoted prostitution, abortion and “birth control”, a term she’s credited with popularising. Some of the contraceptive advice Sanger distributed was extremely dangerous, recommending the use of commercial disinfectants and Mercury (II) chloride, an agricultural fungicide that is highly toxic to humans.[2]

To avoid prosecution Sanger fled America using a forged passport and travelled to England. There she was welcomed by the leaders of the eugenics movement, many of them major cultural and political figures of British society. A campaign to defend Sanger from prosecution won the support of author H G Wells and Sanger’s British counterpart, Marie Stopes wrote to President Woodrow Wilson in Sanger’s defence. When she arrived back in the US, in 1915, the charges against her were dropped. Sanger spent roughly a year in England but from that time on she was an outspoken advocate of eugenics and committed to ridding society of the “feebleminded”, alcoholics, epileptics and those Sanger described as the “dead weight of human waste”.[3]_

In 1916, Sanger opened her first birth control clinic, located in an impoverished area of Brooklyn. Its target was the “immigrant Southern Europeans, Slavs, Latins, and Jews”. As her organisation grew she began to target other “dysgenic races” — including Blacks and Hispanics. In the years that followed she sought to set up new clinics wherever the undesirable sections of the population were to be found.

By October 1939, she had extensive plans to promote birth control among the Black population in the American South through what she called her “Negro project”. She planned to hire three or four “colored Ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities” to travel throughout the South and promote birth control. Sanger believed that: “the most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal.” She wrote: “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.”[4]_

Who was Marie Stopes?

In August of the same year, just a month before Britain went to war, Marie Stopes sent a collection of her poems to the leader of Nazi Germany who had done more than anyone to put eugenic ideas into practice. In the accompanying letter she wrote:

“Dear Herr Hitler, Love is the greatest thing in the world: so will you accept from me these [poems] that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?”[5]

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Born in Edinburgh on 15 October 1880, Marie Stopes was a botanist and a prominent campaigner for the eugenic policies that were to find their full expression in Nazi racial ideology. In Radiant Motherhood (1920), Stopes called for the “sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood to be made…compulsory.” In The Control of Parenthood (1920) she said, “utopia could be reached in my life time” if she had the power to “legislate compulsory sterilisation” of the insane, “feebleminded,” “revolutionaries” and “half-castes.”

Stopes opened the UK’s first birth control centre, the Mothers’ Clinic, at Marlborough Road in London, on 17 March 1921. In 1925, it moved to Whitfield Street in central London, where it remains today. Re-named ‘Marie Stopes House’ it became the flagship clinic of Marie Stopes International.

Following her death, on 2 October 1958, a large part of Stopes’ personal fortune went to the Eugenics Society. This included the Whitfield Street property which she left on the condition that it continued as a birth control centre.[6]_ It is the doorway of this building which was chosen as the logo for Marie Stopes International.

After World War II, the horror of Nazi atrocities carried out in the name of eugenics severely damaged the image of the movement. Leading American eugenicists quietly sought to distance themselves from their past but they did not go away. In the words of Egbert Klautke from University College London, they were “moved to the fringes of academia, or at least forced to drop their openly racist agenda and change their terminology: instead of eugenics and sterilisation, they now supported ‘genetics’ and ‘family planning’.”[7]_

Their one social policy not identified with the public perception of the Nazi regime was abortion. Eugenicists in Britain proposed the legalisation of abortion as means of population control as early as 1945. And many of the campaigners who successfully lobbied for the passage of the Abortion Act were members of the Eugenic Society. Eugenics was also a factor when the US Supreme Court declared access to abortion a constitutional right.

The eugenic agenda behind legal abortion

In 2009, Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg told a journalist at the New York Times: “Frankly, I had thought that at the time Roe was decided there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”

This legacy continues even today in America where Black women are grossly overrepresented among the “clients” of the US abortion industry. A recent study concluded that:

“Black women have been experiencing induced abortions at a rate nearly 4 times that of White women for at least 3 decades, and likely much longer. The impact in years of potential life lost, given abortion’s high incidence and racially skewed distribution, indicates that it is the most demographically consequential occurrence for the minority population. The science community has refused to engage on the subject and the popular media has essentially ignored it. In the current unfolding environment, there may be no better metric for the value of Black lives.”[9]_

Today, the organisations founded by Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes to advance the cause of eugenics remain two of the biggest abortion providers in the world.

[1] George Grant, Grand Illusions: The Legacy of Planned Parenthood, 2ed, (Adroit Press, 1992) p 357 n25.

[2] ibid p 54

[3] Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization (1922) Chapter 5: The Cruelty of Charity.

[4] Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, (Uni of Illinois Press, 2002) p 235

[5] Clare Debenham, Marie Stopes’ Sexual Revolution and the Birth Control Movement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) p 128.

[6] The Times, 7 March 1959.

[7] Egbert Klautke “‘The Germans are beating us at our own Game’: American Eugenics and the German Sterilization Law of 1933”, History of the Human Sciences, 02, 2016, p 13.

[8] Emily Bazelon, ‘The Place of Women on the Court’, New York Times Magazine, 7 July 2009

[9] James Studnicki, John W Fisher, and James L Sherley, “Perceiving and Addressing the Pervasive Racial Disparity in Abortion,” Health Services Research and Managerial Epidemiology, vol 7, Jan-Dec 2020

LifeNews Note: Liam Gibson writes for SPUC, where this column originally appeared.