Last month, Alexis McGill Johnson, the current president of Planned Parenthood, penned a New York Times Op-Ed in which she claimed, “We’re done making excuses for our founder.”
That founder, of course, is the early 20th century racist eugenicist Margaret Sanger, who made contraception and abortion targeted at culling the “unfit” from society her life’s work.
McGill’s non-apology was a not-entirely surprising move as wokeness became the dominant theme in civil (and not-so-civil) discourse following the death of George Floyd in 2020. Even via her acknowledgement, McGill — herself a black woman, who has spoken about “growing up with Black Nationalist parents who taught her to embrace the African and black American experience” — artfully dodges the worst of Sanger’s racism, saying instead that “her legacy on race has been debated” and that “the facts are complicated.”
McGill admits that Sanger addressed the women’s auxiliary of the Klu Klux Klan in New Jersey, supported involuntary eugenic sterilization of the “unfit,” and supported the testing of birth control pills on women in Puerto Rico, who “were not told that the drug was experimental or that they might experience dangerous side effects.”
“We don’t know what was in Sanger’s heart,” McGill unconvincingly deflects, “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.”
And what does that “reckoning” look like? Not much:
We will no longer make excuses or apologize for Margaret Sanger’s actions. But we can’t simply call her racist, scrub her from our history, and move on. We must examine how we have perpetuated her harms over the last century — as an organization, an institution, and as individuals.
It’s hard to imagine a black American woman of prominence — a woman who grew up in a family that “listened to Malcolm X audio tapes, wore African dashikis and sported Afro hairdos” — being so cavalier about “not simply calling Sanger racist” in a time where every white person is subjected to that accusation from militant minority groups and white critical theorists alike as a mere function of their birth.
But McGill slides the real reason for her deflection surreptitiously into a paragraph that also waxes about the need “to do better” on the rights of “women of color” and “trans people” and “the communities” that Planned Parenthood “serves”:
“We face relentless attacks,” she complains, “on our ability to keep providing sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion.”
That, right there, is the crux of it. When it comes to the multi-billion dollar abortion machine, the sexual libertinism that it empowers, the quiet, surgical removal of the unwanted consequences of hedonism and predation alike, even wokeness takes a back seat. Wokeness doesn’t pay the bills, doesn’t facilitate the careers of celebrities and politicians, and certainly doesn’t satisfy the lust for the blood of the innocent on the altar of convenience and “self-empowerment” that undergirds all of it. There’s too much at stake for abortion proponents to be willing to risk cancel culture posing a threat to it.
For a black woman in the powerful, horrifying position that McGill holds, Sanger somehow receives no more than a slap on the wrist — perhaps all the negative attention McGill feels she can afford to show without endangering the cause. And yet, the fact of McGill’s op-ed is itself rather telling.
They can no longer hide Margaret Sanger in the cellar like a crazy old murderous aunt. Racism, not child murder, is now the unforgiveable sin, but Sanger is guilty of both.
Sanger has always been a hard sell for Planned Parenthood, but it was about eleven years ago — the same timeframe where McGill first started working with Planned Parenthood — that the narrative keeping her mythology alive began to come apart at the seams. In another New York Times piece, this one written in 2010, Shaila Dewan explores how a single shift in strategy in the Georgia pro-life movement led to disproportionately positive results. The change? Exposing the eugenic racism of Margaret Sanger and her ideological progeny to the black community disproportionately targeted by them:
“What’s giving it momentum is blacks are finally figuring out what’s going down,” said Johnny M. Hunter, a black pastor and longtime abortion opponent in Fayetteville, N.C. “The game changes when blacks get involved. And in the pro-life movement, a lot of the groups that have been ignored for years, they’re now getting galvanized.”
The factors fueling the focus on black women — an abortion rate far higher than that of other races and the ties between the effort to legalize and popularize birth control and eugenics — are, at heart, old news. But they have been given exaggerated new life by the Internet, slick repackaging, high production values and money, like the more than $20,000 that Georgia Right to Life invested in the billboards.
Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.
Abortion opponents say the number is so high because abortion clinics are deliberately located in black neighborhoods and prey upon black women. The evidence, they say, is everywhere: Planned Parenthood’s response to the anti-abortion ad that aired during the Super Bowl featured two black athletes, they note, and several women’s clinics offered free services — including abortions — to evacuees after Hurricane Katrina.
“The more I dug into it, the more vast I found that the network was,” Ms. Davis said. “And I realized that African-American women just did not know the truth, they did not understand the truth about the abortion industry.”
In 2010, mind you, Planned Parenthood wasn’t even willing to admit that the facts around Sanger were “complicated.” They were still in full PR damage-control mode:
Scholars acknowledge that Sanger did ally herself with eugenics, at the time a mainstream movement, but said she believed that birth control, sterilization and abortion should be voluntary and not based on race. She was also allied with black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. King, who praised her efforts to bring birth control to black families.
“It’s unfair to characterize those efforts as racially targeted in a negative way,” said Ellen Chesler, a historian and Sanger biographer, who is now on the board of Planned Parenthood.
It would have been easy enough, of course, to get the real picture from Sanger herself. She wasn’t afraid of saying it in the right company:
It’s a quote so over the top, so transparently awful, I was somewhat inclined to doubt it. But it turned up pretty quickly in a Google search, in an essay from Human Life International:
According to her, the most “insidiously injurious philanthropy” was maternity care given poor women. Commenting on the funds given to the blind, the deaf, and those in almshouses and reformatories, she said that the public should realize the “terrible cost to the community of this dead weight of human waste.” She also chastised the Marxists who did not believe that the growth of the working class should be regulated and called them “benign imbeciles.”
Sanger collaborated with European eugenicists in promoting her ideas. She invited Hitler’s adviser on race hygiene, Eugene Fischer, to the U.S. A board member of the American Birth Control League, Lothrop Stoddard, had personal interviews with Hitler and was very impressed. His book, “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy” was favorably reviewed in the October 1920 issue of Birth Control Review. The April 1933 issue focused entirely on eugenic sterilization.
Sanger once proposed a birth control plan for the blacks which will employ three or four black ministers to promote birth control among blacks in Southern U.S. She wrote: “The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through religious appeal. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate them, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” Sanger herself proposed that dysgenic groups (those with bad genes) be given a choice of sterilization or lifelong segregation in work camps.
Monstrous racist that she was, though, when it came to abortion, Sanger was an equal-opportunity butcher. Yes, she saw the black race as inherently inferior, but she was willing to dismember just about any baby she considered a nuisance or in some way “unfit,” and she made that perfectly clear:
As President of the American Birth Control League, she edited its publication, The Birth Control Review. In the May 1919 issue of that review, she wrote, “more children from the fit, less from the unfit – that is the chief issue of birth control.” The motto on the masthead of the December 1921 issue emphasized the purpose of birth control which was according to Sanger: “To create a race of thoroughbreds.”
Sanger also batted for abortion. In her Credo for Women’s Rights, she advocated “The Right to Create and The Right to Destroy,” and she said, “No one can doubt that abortion is justifiable.” She also one wrote, “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”
What a horrifying person.
All of this leads us back to the present moment, and the attempt at “brand repair” going on at the nation’s largest abortion provider.
While it’s true that Planned Parenthood is at least tacitly acknowledging its own racial skeletons, its doubling down on abortion as “reproductive freedom.” And the eugenic underpinnings of the ideology it has spawned remain on display, even in the cases where race isn’t the issue of “unfitness.”
In an Op-Ed this week at USA Today, Mary Rose Somarriba references McGill’s acknowledgment of her organization’s troubling past before going on to show that nothing has actually changed:
I applaud Alexis McGill Johnson for openly discussing the ugly origins of Planned Parenthood, but completely disagree that the organization is capable of stopping what Sanger started. Eugenic motives are still alive and well in the abortion- and contraceptive-providing business, of which Planned Parenthood is a leader.
Somarriba tells her own story about a recent visit to her OBGYN, where the old eugenic mindset made itself manifest:
In March, I was lying on an exam table in a local hospital for a 20-week ultrasound, after which an attending doctor was brought in to look over the imaging and answer any questions I had. While the ultrasound tech said my baby’s physiological specs looked great, the doctor redirected the conversation to my child’s possible risk of Cystic Fibrosis (CF), which causes damage primarily to the lungs and digestive system.
I am a CF carrier, and we haven’t tested if my husband is or not, so, the doctor encouraged me to get him tested so we could have a risk percentage for this child.
I told her I don’t care to do so; I already have three healthy children with this man, CF risk or not. But she continued to push the issue. “Would knowing the chance of CF for my child give us a head start in providing care for her?” I asked. No, she said. My ultrasound shows no Down Syndrome risk, but CF can’t be seen by ultrasound, she stressed. I’d need my husband to be tested to have an estimate.
And then, things got weirder:
I repeatedly tried to wrap up the conversation; she repeatedly tried to focus on how there could be something wrong with my baby. Neither of us used the word “abortion,” but it was obvious she was trying to steer our conversation into a discussion about it. I felt like she was trying to convince me to care about something, a CF diagnosis, that I didn’t care about – like she was trying to convince me to un-want my pregnancy.
The entire exchange had less to do with my 20-week-gestated baby’s development and more about genetic testing data that could render my child defective and disposable in her eyes.
The doctor seemed unable to see my child’s humanity. I wondered how many vulnerable moms she had encouraged to remove their supposedly “imperfect” children from the gene pool. Detectable in utero or not, hardships are a part of life, I thought, and I don’t believe they make life not worth living.
Somarriba explains that in her home state of Ohio, there’s a law “prohibiting doctors from performing abortions if the woman seeking it has informed the doctor her motivation is fear the child has Down Syndrome” — this in response to the fact that a staggering 67% of babies discovered to have Down’s Syndrome in the womb are killed in this country, and many more are killed in other countries — in Iceland the number is close to 100%.
“Laws like this,” Somarriba continues, “aim to curb abortions sought for eugenic purposes – i.e. for reasons of discrimination due to race, sex, or disability. In my case, the concern for my child’s possible disability wasn’t coming from me, but from the doctor pushing the CF fear on me.”
It’s incredibly disturbing that doctors will openly pressure these mothers during pregnancy — a time known for hormone-induced impairment to cognition and increased emotional volatility — to murder the very children they’re coming in to receive care for. There’s little doubt that this kind of behavior plays a significant role in our escalating loss of trust for experts in the medical field in general. How can anyone put their faith in someone who doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about the Hippocratic Oath that most of them have ostensibly taken?
Somarriba says that she sees an inexorable intertwinement of both abortion and eugenic thinking. Planned Parenthood, she points out, doesn’t take up causes like “lobbying to expose or stop pressured abortions, or notifying the state when underage girls are raped and made pregnant by adult men.” It does, however, make a lot of money by providing abortions, demonstrating that they have a very real incentive to continue their macabre work, despite the eugenic entanglements. And she demonstrates with statistics and examples that both at home and abroad, the question of eugenics remains very much at center stage in the contraceptive and abortion industries.
“Consider me unconvinced,” Sommariba writes, “that Planned Parenthood can undo its founder’s motives to reduce the number of ‘unfit’ people born into the world. Abortion providers have a habit of seeing some lives as more worthy than others – it’s ugly, I know – but it’s kind of their thing.”
It is kind of their thing. And insincere, politically-motivated “reckonings” do nothing but transparently attempt to sugarcoat it.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.