A New York Times op ed (April 17) declares in its headline: “I’m Head of Planned Parenthood. We’re Done Making Excuses for Our Founder.”
And yet, Alexis McGill Johnson, president and chief executive of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, spends much of her column doing just that: Making excuses, while attempting to create distance between Planned Parenthood the business and the racism and eugenics at its core.
We don’t know what was in Sanger’s heart, and we don’t need to in order to condemn her harmful choices. What we have is a history of focusing on white womanhood relentlessly. Whether our founder was a racist is not a simple yes or no question. Our reckoning is understanding her full legacy, and its impact. Our reckoning is the work that comes next.
McGill Johnson admits that Sanger spoke at a Ku Klux Klan meeting, but neglects to mention the “Negro project” Sanger founded in 1939, to promote birth control to black communities. For this to be effective, Sanger warned: “I do not believe that this project should be directed or run by white medical men. The Federation should direct it with the guidance and assistance of the colored group . . . perhaps, particularly and specifically formed for the purpose. . . . 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.”
McGill Johnson also claims that Sanger “eventually distanced herself from the eugenics movement because of its hard turn to explicit racism,” but she doesn’t give any evidence for that. In fact, as Charles A. Donovan and Robert H. Marshall—authors, two decades ago, of the seminal book on the subject, Blessed are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood—respond in the Wall Street Journal:
Sanger’s ideas about racial betterment—the elimination of “human weeds,” as she called them—weren’t merely the regrettably common views of “a different time.” She went further than most. In her proposed “baby code” of 1934, Sanger recommended that licenses to marry should be separated from licenses to have children. Article 4, meant to apply nationwide, stated: “No woman shall have the legal right to bear a child, and no man shall have the right to become a father, without a permit for parenthood.” Article 8 would have provided that “feeble-minded persons, habitual congenital criminals, those afflicted with heritable disease, and others found biologically unfit by authorities qualified [to] judge should be sterilized or, in cases of doubt, should be so isolated as to prevent the perpetuation of their afflictions by breeding.”
These lines were written not at the beginning of Sanger’s career but nearly two decades after she opened her first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y. Coercion lay at the core of her strategy to stop the propagation of “the unfit.”
So: Is it possible for Planned Parenthood to distance itself from the racism of its founder? I reached out to someone with unique insight into both the black and the pro-life communities. Cherilyn Holloway has spent the last six years on the front lines of the pro-life movement as a development director and executive director of her local pregnancy center, and is the founder of the advocacy organization Pro-Black Pro-Life.
Holloway’s response to McGill Johnson’s op ed:
Systems are designed so that we know how things work. They are created to be followed and replicated. When Margaret Sanger, a well-known eugenicist, first created birth control, she designed a system to make sure black communities were reproducing at a lower rate. Part of that design, that she put in place over a century ago, was established by recruiting black leaders and black pastors to support her work and promote this idea of lower birth rates amongst “defective stocks”—a term she used when addressing the Ku Klux Klan, likely unbeknownst to those black leaders. But when she planted that seed, it took root. And that root will always remain at the base of the Planned Parenthood tree. A tree which flourished, grew branches, and later, bore fruit. That fruit is a representation of what was underground all along and will always taste of what was originally sown.
When the eugenics movement began, it was evident that the fruit was poisonous and was meant to eliminate the black race. Now we see Planned Parenthood deciding they want to “change” the fruit they planted, without actually dismantling the entire root system. They want us to call the apples they grew “Asian pears” instead, even though they’re clearly still apples. There is no other racist system that we, as a black community, would accept this type of obvious deception from. We are not just looking at the leadership involved, we are looking at the reason why this system was created in the first place . . . the toxic root they are still very much physically connected to. The thing about systemic racism, in all of its facets, is that it is not something you can touch or see while it is happening because it is constantly working to oppress. Instead, what we see are the results of it—the data that is collected from that system being in place. That is why we see a disproportionate abortion rate in the black community; that is why we see them targeting our neighborhoods with subpar women’s “healthcare,” and that is why the systemic issues with Planned Parenthood run so deep, and must finally be uprooted, once and for all.
Amen to that. No amount of “excusing” can cure the poison at the root of Planned Parenthood.
For more on Cherilyn Holloway’s mission as a bridge builder between black communities and the pro-life movement, see her article Racism and Abortion: Ministering Healing in Black Communities. .