The real Margaret Sanger

I might have known – Katha Pollitt was already on it, way back last August.

I admit I took it a bit personally when Planned Parenthood of Greater New York took the name of the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger, off its flagship clinic in Manhattan in July. It will now be called Manhattan Health Center. What am I supposed to do now with the two Planned Parenthood Maggie Awards I’ve won for articles on reproductive rights?

Call herself Karen, I guess.

Whether erasing Sanger was an olive branch to Black staffers or part of a deeper self-investigation, there’s no question that the main winners here are abortion opponents. For decades, they’ve claimed that Sanger was a racist bent on Black genocide and that Planned Parenthood is carrying out that mission today. In 2016, Planned Parenthood released a historically accurate, fair, and complex statement refuting that absurd claim, but why would anyone pay attention to that now?

Never mind that the anti-choice movement has never done a thing for Black people and, like Sanger’s old enemy the Catholic hierarchy, is closely allied with racist institutions like the Republican Party and white evangelical Protestantism. The bogus anti-racism of the self-described pro-life movement was on full display in 2011, when billboards appeared picturing an adorable Black child with the caption “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” In other words: The biggest danger to Black people is pregnant Black women. It is truly painful that this canard about Sanger has now been given a stamp of approval by the very organization she founded.

For the record, Margaret Sanger was not a racist, as PPGNY board chairman Karen Seltzer asserts. As her biographer Ellen Chesler told me, she was a progressive who believed in racial integration. She voted for Norman Thomas. She worked with progressive Black people—W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, who along with Mary McCleod Bethune and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. served on the board of the Negro Project, a network of birth control and maternal health clinics Sanger established in Harlem and the South. In 1966, Martin Luther King accepted Planned Parenthood’s first Margaret Sanger Award, and in his statement offered a vigorous endorsement of voluntary birth control.

Funny how Alexis McGill Johnson didn’t mention all that in her Times op ed trashing Sanger.

I’ll just come right out and say it: Margaret Sanger did more good for American women than any other individual in the entire 20th century. She is the person who connected birth control not just to women’s health—something the Catholic Church has yet to grasp, although it controls one in seven US hospital beds—but also to our self-determination and sexual freedom. She was the key leader who really grasped the fact that without the ability to control our own bodies, women would never be free or equal or even just happy and well. She was more than a writer, an activist, a health provider, and an organizer, though she was all those things. She was a whirlwind of energy who changed our understanding of womanhood, sex, and marriage so fundamentally, we can barely picture what life was like before her.

There are so many ways of forgetting where we have been. Planned Parenthood has just made doing so a little easier.

Thank you Katha.

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