Thursday, October 25, 2012

Defending Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger
I recently published a blog post on RI Future entitled Catholic Church Avoids Domin Ave., KKK Issue asking why, if the Providence Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church can weigh in on issues both significant (reproductive rights) and insignificant (the holiday tree nontroversy,) they refuse to comment on the propriety of keeping a street in Smithfield named for 1920's era Ku Klux Klan leader and rabid anti-Catholic John Domin. My article was inspired by Roger Schenck, the man who discovered the Domin Ave/KKK connection when he forwarded some of the correspondence between himself and Providence Diocese Director of Communication Michael Guilfoyle.

Shortly after the blog went up there were two comments posted by Kara Russo Young, former candidate for U.S. Congress and R.I. Lt. Governor. Now, it should be noted, in the interest of full disclose, that there is some history between Russo Young and myself. Russo Young was one of the most vocal opponents of my niece Jessica Ahlquist and her efforts to remove an unconstitutional prayer banner from the walls of her high school in Cranston. Russo Young and her then future/now present husband Chris Young showed up at every school committee meeting, with many of their supporters in tow, arguing that religion needs to be taught in schools.

I videotaped the appearances of Kara Russo Young and Chris Young at the school committee meetings and put them on YouTube. In reading the Judge's decision in Ahlquist v. City of Cranston I was pleased to see that the judge had watched my videos, and found them compelling evidence that the prayer banner served a religious purpose, because of all the religious arguments that were made in its defense. Ironically, those defending the prayer banner had made one of the best cases for its unconstitutionality.

Kara has read my blog, Caution Church Ahead, and at one Cranston School Committee meeting quoted from my blog as some kind of evidence of an anti-Catholic atheistic conspiracy. On February 22nd, 2011, Russo, in a statement before the Cranston School Board said,
Okay, okay, her uncle, her uncle is probably here tonight and is promoting her like crazy to all his-  has a website specifically for Atheists called Caution Church Ahead where he attacks priests, where he attacks people who are pro-life, where they have banners up that say the Nativity is the lie, is a lie. Okay? This is what they're about. It's not a passive "we just want to be left alone" and they're so offended. No! They want God removed from our society and we're not going to stand for that! God created all of us!
This was the first time I ever heard anyone mention my blog in public. At the time I wrote, "I guess I'm now officially part of the culture war."

So, our history out in the open, I will present the two comments Kara made.
Steve – Considering how vocal you are on so many issues, why don’t you publicly weigh in on on the documented fact that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a well known racist and eugenicist who spoke at a KKK rally? (There are even pictures documenting Margaret Sanger there.) If you have spoken out about this, then I apologize! To see more on Margaret Sanger racists eugenicist practices please watch this documentary, from 1:30 in the video on:
This video, from around 7:00 in the video on, gives more great information on the eugenics agenda and racism of Planned Parenthood and Margaret Sanger, including Sanger and the KKK:
Now the reason I've decided to answer her here, on my blog, instead of on RI Future, is because her comments are in no way relevant to the issue of Domin Ave or the silence of the Providence Diocese on the issue. Also, I don't think her question is particularly relevant on a blog that deals with Progressive issues. It seems more personal than that, so I am bringing it to my personal blog. But I do think Russo Young is posing a fair question, if I interpret her correctly. She wants to know why I speak out on some issues and not others, essentially the same question I asked of the Providence Diocese.

I've written nearly a thousand posts on Caution Church Ahead, so Russo Young is absolutely right that I am "vocal on so many issues." I am an outspoken advocate of reproductive freedom in general and Planned Parenthood specifically. I have often taken the Catholic Church to task because of their position on reproductive rights.

On the other hand, the question of Margaret Sanger's racial views or support of eugenics is not really relevant to anything going on today. For instance, we aren't talking about a street in Smithfield called Sanger Ave, and I usually try to springboard my pieces off of some sort of contemporary topic or news story. A critique of Planned Parenthood, as it operates today might relevant, and talking about Sanger's views on race and eugenics might be interesting in the abstract, but looking at her views as as a way of critiquing the organization as it exists today is silly.

However, there is a challenge in Russo Young's comments. If I might paraphrase: I have criticized the Catholic Church for not taking a stand on a particular issue, so Russo Young is criticizing me for not taking a stand on another issue.
I don't feel any obligation to answer this challenge. I mean, seriously, am I expected to simply expound upon any subject I'm asked about as if I'm an expert in every possible field? Must I have an opinion on everything and everyone? 

Fortunately, I like a challenge, so I will in fact share my thoughts. Here goes:

To the extent that Margaret Sanger espoused racist views or supported eugenics with an eye towards racial purity or towards the elimination of what she saw as racial defects, she was wrong and I disagree with them. But I am not sure that Margaret Sanger ever held the opinions the documentary says she did. In a pdf available from Planned Parenthood, many of the lies and distortions about Sanger put forth in Russo Young's YouTube clips are revealed.

As for Sanger's KKK connection, this is mentioned in her autobiography, published twelve years after the fact, in 1938. She called it "one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing" and added that she had to use "the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand." These are hardly the words of a Klan supporter, she called them weird and simple, after all. Should Sanger have spoken to an audience of racists and bigots? In my opinion, it was a bad call. Sanger was speaking to a woman's auxiliary Klan group, and perhaps she felt it was more important to get her message out to all women, regardless of their beliefs. Still, it wasn't the decision I would have made.

As for the existence of pictures from Sanger's talk at the KKK rally, these are fakes, the result of a contest held by another blog in 2006. They are not even particularly good fakes. There are no pictures from the event, and it is doubtful that anyone would know about this if Sanger had not mentioned it in her autobiography. This was, by the way, ridiculously easy to look up.

I am unconvinced by the documentary, Maafa 21, that Russo Young linked to in her comments. This documentary is a poorly constructed hatchet job, made with the intention of advancing a ridiculous conspiracy theory that Planned Parenthood has a plan of racial genocide via the murder of black babies by bringing sensible family planning and birth control into poor neighborhoods. Maafa 21 is the very same movie that Russo Young's then future husband, Chris Young, threw at U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy in 2009 in an infamous incident that led to his arrest at Brown University.

The film is filled with distortions of facts and outright lies, too many to go into know but the Wikipedia page linked above is full of links to pages that deconstruct them. Even if you dismiss the evidence about the documentary's lies, there's no reason to believe the current incarnation of Planned Parenthood is racist or trying to impose some sort of nefarious eugenics program. This would be like saying that since the Founding Father's of the United States were slave owners, slavery must still be legal today. It is possible that institutions evolve and change over time. For instance, the Catholic Church doesn't go after witches and Jews with the intent to burn them anymore.

If Planned Parenthood is an organization concerned with racism and eugenics, why would Faye Wattleton, an African-American woman, serve as president of the group from 1978 to 1992? Why would Martin Luther King, in receiving a Margaret Sanger Award (which he was "honored" to receive) from Planned Parenthood in 1966 write, “At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions.”

Tossing this video about, whether at Congressmen or in the form of Internet comments, is irresponsible. It is little more than fear mongering and propaganda. If Russo Young has an issue with Planned Parenthood, why not critique the institution as it exists and runs today? Could it be that in providing excellent and needed services in women's health care that Planned Parenthood is too difficult to attack? It is much easier to reach back into time and smear the reputation of the group's founder than it is to construct a reasoned critique of the contemporary organization.

Margaret Sanger bravely stood up for the rights of women to control their own bodies, and to choose or not choose motherhood as fully autonomous and realized persons. However, though it is important to not idealize people and Sanger, like every human being, was not a perfect person, that doesn't make her any less of a hero, or any less great. Sanger was a woman who fought for the rights of women at a time when women had few rights, and she should be remembered as a staunch advocate for women and families, regardless of what side of the reproductive rights debate one finds themselves on. Her demonization at the hands of zealots serves only to diminish women of accomplishment, and does nothing to further the debate over abortion and birth control.

People who speak publicly about important issues have an obligation to be honest. That means doing the research necessary to make sure that the information you present as fact really is as close to the truth as possible. False accusations and phony documentaries are not needed if you have the truth on your side. These are the tactics of those who have no convincing arguments in their favor.


  1. I found myself in a single person counter-protest at a Planned Parenthood a couple of weeks back (, and Margaret Sanger's support of eugenics was brought up by one of their protesters.

    I specifically avoided engaging in debate with them, because I wanted to get a copy of the paperwork they were handing out, but I plan on putting together a succinct rebuttal to their propaganda for the next time I run in to them. I really appreciate you posting this!

  2. I loved reading about your one person counter protest. Good job. The Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist angle is really odd, in my opinion. I think there's a mind set among the religious right that they need to identify our "spiritual" leaders. They have Jesus and Reagan, and so they think we hold Darwin, Marx, Freud and Sanger in the same regard. Of course, I could say that I simply take the best ideas I can find from anywhere they come from, whether they be from Jesus or Darwin or Sanger or Reagan, but that won't compute.

    Sothese attacks on Sanger are relatively meaningless, except that I think in Sanger's case there's an added level of anti-feminism and misogyny. Women have fewer historical role models, so diminishing their accomplishments has the effect of destroying role models.

  3. Good research, Steve. Thanks for another great post.