The History of Planned Parenthood

Author: Mike Perry



About The Author

Mike Perry is a free-lance writer and historian. He is currently writing a book describing the Nazi indoctrination of German youth; it is tentatively entitled From the Tenderest Years.

THE HISTORY OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD We are merely walking down the path that Mrs. Sanger carved for us. --DR. ALAN GUTTMACHER, PRESIDENT OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD, 1962-74.

Planned Parenthood is powerful. It has the enthusiastic support of influential organizations and extensive connections inside the government. It invariably gets favorable coverage in the news media and each year it receives large sums of money from taxes and community charities. Yet the public knows nothing about its history. This silence has a reason.

Rooted in Fear

In the years after World War I, a number of competing organizations formed to promote birth control. The most controversial of these was the American Birth Control League (ABCL). In 1933, Eleanor Dwight Jones, the President of ABCL, described the organization's founders as "a devoted group of liberals and feminists led by Margaret Sanger."[1]

These organizations arose out of the fears of America's affluent, educated elite. To have more money and time for themselves, they were having fewer children. As a result they were alarmed by the high birth rates of poor and working-class people.[2] They considered the prolific poor, as Sanger put it, "the most far reaching peril to the future of civilization."[3]

Two Movements

Two movements developed in response to these fears. Both considered the nation a "race" that could be strengthened by keeping the birth rate of the "fit" (the affluent) above that of the "unfit" (the poor). They differed only in whose birth rate they wanted to change.

The eugenicists warned of "race suicide" if the nation's dominant group, educated people of Northern European descent, did not increase its birthrate. President Theodore Roosevelt expressed their view in March 1905 when he attacked women who used birth control as "criminal against the race."[4] This group wanted more children from the "fit."

The other movement, birth controllers, was more attractive to feminists such as Margaret Sanger.[5] It did not demand that affluent women abandon careers for large families. It planned to achieve race building by forcing down the birth rate of the "unfit." In her autobiography, Margaret Sanger summarized the differences between the two movements:

Eugenics without birth control seemed to me a house built upon sands...The eugenicists wanted to shift the birth-control emphasis from less children for the poor to more children for the rich. We went back of that and sought to stop the multiplication of the unfit."[6]

To stop this "multiplication," Sanger could be harsh. Her book The Pivot of Civilization has a chapter called "The Cruelty of Charity." In it she blasts as "insidiously injurious" programs to provide "medical and nursing facilities to slum mothers." Such programs "facilitate the function of maternity" when "the absolute necessity is to discourage it." Sanger believed that a poor woman who died in childbirth gave other poor women more incentive to visit her conveniently located birth control clinics.[7]

Problems Develop

For a time the birth control movement had the radical but trendy image often used by the elite to disguise its selfish agenda. It successfully conveyed the impression that birth control clinics were for the poor rather than directed at them. Their opponents were branded as religious reactionaries. By the late 1930s, however, the birth control movement faced serious problems.

First, worried about the political impact of high minority birth rates, they targeted inner-cities with birth control clinics. Today, that population is primarily black and Hispanic. In that era, however, it was made up of Eastern European Jews and Southern European Catholics. Birth controllers considered them a threat to democracy. (This is the source of Planned Parenthood's present-day anti-Catholic bigotry.) Instead, Jews and Catholics used the opportunities America offered to become politically powerful. Opposition to birth controllers by orthodox Jews and Catholics was not just theological. It countered a veiled but vicious bigotry.

Second, the birth controllers equated "unfit" with poor. With a characteristic lack of compassion, they saw the Great Depression as an opportunity to promote birth control under the guise of reducing welfare costs.[8] The Depression, however, had another result. The millions of ordinary Americans thrown into poverty by unemployment resented suggestions that because they were now as poor as inner-city immigrants, they were "unfit" to have children. Potential support for birth control shrank rather than grew.[9]

Third, in the late 1930s people noticed similarities between the arguments of eugenicists, birth controllers and Nazis. All talked of race building and all divided humanity into the fit and the unfit. All even saw the fit as primarily of Northern European stock.[10]

Nazism and the birth control movement had one major difference. The Nazis used both positive and negative approaches. They encouraged "Aryan" births with financial rewards while legalizing sterilization (1933) and abortion for Jews and the genetically unfit (1935). After occupying Eastern Europe, Nazi Germany eagerly provided Slavs with legal abortions." Sanger objected to measures encouraging births, but neither she nor the birth-control movement as a whole ever found "it necessary to denounce fascist 'negative-eugenics' policies."[12] In fact, as late as November of 1939 (two months after Germany began World War II by invading Poland) Birth Control Review was still commending the Nazi birth control program and noting that, in comparison to that of the Italians, "The German program has been much more carefully worked out. The need for quality as well as quantity is recognized."[13]

Eugenicists went even further in their praise. They were openly enthusiastic about what the Nazis were doing. At the World Population Congress held in Berlin during the summer of 1935 Dr. Clarence Campbell, president of the American Eugenics Research Association, gave what Time magazine termed a "warm, approving speech" in support of Nazi policies. His speech went on to criticize those with sentimental and religious views of marriage while claiming his view was that of "enlightened minds."[14]

Race Building

By the late 1930s, growing public hostility meant eugenicists and birth control groups could no longer afford to compete for the dwindling funds from foundations and wealthy donors. As Gordon notes, "In 1938 rivalry in the birth control movement was ended with the reunification of Sanger's friends and enemies in the Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA)."[15]

In January 1940 the BCFA held its annual meeting in New York City. The title of the symposium, "Race Building in a Democracy," showed little had changed. The same title was given to a luncheon speech by Henry Fairchild, president of the American Eugenics Society.

At that meeting, the eugenics movement, tainted by public hostility to their Nazi-like ideologies, united with the birth controllers. In his speech Dr. Fairchild noted, "One of the outstanding features of the present conference is...that these two great movements, eugenics and birth control, have now come together as almost indistinguishable."[16]

Planned Parenthood was the product of that union. The luncheon at which Dr. Fairchild spoke also began the 1940 fund drive for "The Citizens Committee for Planned Parenthood." Birth Control Review noted that the two events would give "an unusually comprehensive portrayal of the Federation of today and tomorrow."[l7]

A New Name

The birth control leaders realized that more than a new organization was needed. A new image had to replace the tainted one. To create that new image, Sanger, now their Honorary Chairman, hired D. Kenneth Rose as public relations consultant.[l8] Rose recommended that they drop "birth control" from their name and use "planned parenthood" instead. Sanger objected, but "In 1942 the new organization changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). It was the only national birth-control organization until the abortion-reform movement that began in the late 1960s."[l9]

New language came with the new name. Old arguments based on heredity and racial stock disappeared, tainted by their association with Nazism. The new rhetoric focused on the environment, and birth control clinics became family planning centers. But the movement's basic tactic, using poverty to force the poor to have fewer children, remained unchanged. Gordon explains:

Furthermore, in its new emphasis on health, Planned Parenthood continued its eugenic traditions. Class, or income level, now replaced "stock" as the determining criteria, but many planned-parenthood arguments rested on the assumption that the children of the poor would be less healthy than the children of the rich; and since they did not suggest that better nutrition or medical care could change these health destinies, their arguments continued to reinforce hereditarian views.[20]

Sanger herself felt that these changes made no difference in the organization's basic purpose and shared that conviction in a 1948 conversation with a colleague, Mariann Olden. During the 1930s, Olden had been chairman of the social hygiene department of the Princeton branch of the National League of Women Voters. In 1943 she founded an organization dedicated to the forced sterilization of the "unfit."

Before World War II, groups promoting sterilization and immigration restriction had an agenda much like that of birth controllers. Because, of their efforts, laws permitting the forced sterilization of people judged "unfit" were passed in some 37 states. In its never overturned 1927 Buck v. Bell decision the Supreme Court declared such laws constitutional. Conservative Protestants had joined Catholics in fighting such laws and in bringing a legal challenge before the Court. At the time of the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, author of the Court's opinion, wrote the British socialist, Harold Laski, that "the religious were all astir" about the case. In his reply, Laski told Holmes, "Sterilize all the unfit, among whom I include all fundamentalists."[21]

After the war many of the sterilization groups, including that founded by Olden, changed their stress from eugenic to voluntary sterilization. Olden, however, remaind committed to the original objective and its rabid religious bigotry. As a result, in 1948 she was forced to leave the organization. She described the difference between her situation and that of Margaret Sanger this way:

Margaret Sanger had gracefully allowed herself to be removed from all guidance over her Birth Control organization. Unlike me, she did not have to fear the reversal of the basic policy toward the organized opposition nor the much greater evil of abandoning the primary objective, which in our case was to obtain the passage of sterilization legislature. I realized that to most people it would be a temptation to take the easier course of sponsoring merely voluntary sterilization, a progam I felt would be dysgenic.[22]

In short, Margaret Sanger herself believed that the organization she had founded had not altered its "primary objective"-stopping the "multiplication of the unfit."

Shifting Targets

Revealingly, the public relations consultant who recommended the name change was not the first to suggest "Planned Parenthood" as a name. The suggestion came in a 1938 letter from Dr. Lydia DeVilbiss, a Florida physician, birth controller and racist. Choosing a name suggested by an open racist illustrates once again that the new name didn't mean a new agenda.[23]

Dr. DeVilbiss' influence also reflects a new priority. Racial minorities were now more threatening than immigrants. The reason is obvious. The same elitist fears that created the birth control movement also led to the restrictive 1924 immigration laws. (Blocked from immigrating by elitist American anti-semitism, millions of Jews would die under the Nazis.)

In its place came a new migration. The nation's black population was on the move. At the turn of the century 90 percent of the nation's blacks lived in the South. But racism, depression, and war industry brought them north, where they replaced immigrant Catholics and Jews in the ghettos. By the 1960s half the nation's blacks would live outside the South. Similar conditions brought Hispanics to this country.

Reaching these people with birth control required new tactics. As the 1940 symposium title hints, "race building" in a democracy has to be subtle. Coercion cannot be overt. Deception must take the place of force. The victims must never know they are a target. A number of tactics were used to deceive the victims.

Visible Blacks

First, birth controllers hoped (correctly) that black leaders would be easier to manipulate than Catholic leaders had been. The movement planned to win black cooperation by placing blacks in highly visible positions. Sanger described this to Clarence Gamble in October 1939. In that letter she described how "colored Ministers, preferably with social service backgrounds" could be used and added ominously, "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 the idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members."[24]

Clarence Gamble advocated the same tactic in a private memo that year when he said, "There is a great danger that we will fail because the Negroes think it a plan for extermination. Hence lets appear to let the colored think it run it as we appear to let south do the conference at Atlanta."[25] Under this policy PPFA hired a full-time "Negro Consultant" in 1944.[26]

Government Support

Second, the movement realized its radical tactics had to be abandoned. For programs on the scale they required, government funding and influential contacts inside the medical and social welfare systems were needed. They had to work within rather than outside the system. In a March 1939 letter, Margaret Sanger explained this to Frank Boudreau, director of the Milbank Memorial Fund:

...statisticians and population experts as well as members of the medical profession had courage to attack the basic problem at the roots: That is not asking or suggesting a cradle competition between the intelligent and the ignorant, but a drastic curtailment of the birth rate at the source of the unfit, the diseased and the incompetent...The birth control clinics all over the country are doing their utmost to reach the lower strata of our population, but as we must depend upon people coming to the Clinics, we must realize that there are hundreds of thousands of women who never leave their own vicinity...but the way to approach these people is through the social workers, visiting nurses and midwives.[27]

Liberal Alliance

Third, in a move that would not bear full fruit until the drive for abortion legalization in the late 1960s, Planned Parenthood began developing the political alliances necessary for government funding and legal change. In the South, birth control officials found they merely had to show local officials the difference between black and white birth rates to win enthusiastic support. Beginning with North Carolina in 1937, seven Southern states pioneered government-funded family planning.[28]

Political support was also growing outside the South. The motivation for this can be seen in the different attitudes toward birth control held by the two Roosevelts (distant cousins) who have been President. In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt, a Progressive Republican, alarmed feminists by blasting birth control as "criminal against the race." Almost exactly forty years later, in March of 1945, Franklin Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat, expressed a far different view, though one with the same goal in mind. The historian Christopher Thorne described it this way:

Subjects to do with breeding and race seem, indeed, to have held a certain fascination for the President... Roosevelt felt it in order to talk, jokingly, of dealing with Puerto Rico's excessive birth rate by employing, in his own words, "the methods which Hitler used effectively." He said to Charles Taussig and William Hassett, as the former recorded it, "that it is all very simple and painless. You have people pass through a narrow passage and then there is a brrrrr of an electrical apparatus. They stay there for twenty seconds and from then on they are sterile."[29]

The Stage Is Set

The stage was set for a new strategy. Support from the wealthy and powerful was assured. As in the days of Moses and the Pharaoh, such people were eager to curtail the birth rates of the poor and socially troublesome.

The cooperation of the news media could be counted on. Given the large minority populations of most big cities, journalists who never exposed the ugly anti-immigrant bigotry of the earlier "race building" birth controllers could be relied on to keep silent about Planned Parenthood's new agenda and particularly its impact on black and Hispanic families.

As it had been for decades, feminist support was unwavering. Like Sanger, their leaders had no desire to lay aside well-paying careers for a cradle competition with poor women. They would provide the all-important illusion that the agenda was for all women, not directed at some for the benefit of others.

Like Franklin Roosevelt, liberals were little troubled by the parallels with Nazism. In the fight for tax-funded family planning, liberals quietly followed in the footsteps of Southern racists, and were motivated by much the same reasons.

Getting the black elite to cooperate was critical for, as Sanger noted, the suspicion of a major target group had to be allayed. Legalized discrimination in their favor, well-paying careers, and political support would win many to the liberal cause. The black male elite, with its chronic womanizing, was quick to see the personal advantages of abortion legalization. Nor was bigotry absent. Many in the black elite view the black underclass much as the white elite does the white poor. Margaret Sanger, for all her hatred of immigrants and Catholics, had an Irish immigrant father and a Catholic mother.

The Play Begins

The play began in earnest during the 1960s and was motivated by several factors. First, the civil rights movement eliminated the worst aspects of Southern racism. The Northern liberal elite supported civil rights, in part, to reduce the pressures driving blacks northward. (As a number of blacks have noted, liberals never displayed much enthusiasm for combating Northern racism.) This paralleled the post-World War I tactic of restricting immigration and then forcing down birth rates. In a 1926 speech at Vassar, Sanger spoke of that very tactic when she said that the nation needed to follow the "drastic immigration laws" of 1924 with methods "to cut down on the rapid multiplication of the unfit and undesirable at home."[30]

Second, during the fifties Planned Parenthood had purred contentedly at the high birth rate of white suburbia. Its eugenic ("more from the fit") side was in control. But after the advent of the birth control pill in 1960, middle-class birth rates plummeted. As a result, the birth rates of racial (black and Hispanic) and religious (conservative Catholic and Protestant) minorities became disproportionately high.

The "less from the unfit" side of Planned Parenthood again became dominant. In the latter half of the 1960s, Planned Parenthood and similar groups spent millions of dollars promoting the idea that the U.S. was in the midst of a dangerous population explosion. The idea was so absurd it could be disproved in five minutes at any public library. Caught up in the hysteria, however, the nation's news media never questioned why groups were warning of a "population bomb" in the midst of plummeting birth rates.

Among friends, Planned Parenthood officials described the real situation. On August 11, 1965, Dr. Robert Nelson, Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of metropolitan Washington, spoke at the Senate "Baby Boom" hearings. He noted that in Washington, DC, "the less well-off economic section birth rate is 29/1000 and going up; the rate of the economically more secure group is 16/1000 and going down."[31] (As if to underscore his point, the rioting in the Watts ghetto broke out that same day.) All the public warnings of a "population explosion" hid the real agenda, reducing the birth rates of socially troublesome groups. The problem was compounded by a third factor, the "sexual revolution" of the late 1960s. High rates of promiscuity meant still more troublesome births in both the white and black communities.[32]

Inconsistency and hypocrisy make the real agenda clear to anyone willing to see. Mention abortion and liberals are eager to provide the poor with the same choice (abortion) as the rich. Mention education for that same child and liberals become openly hostile.

Nor is that the only area where abortion supporters want more abortions rather than more choices. Over and over again, the "pro-choice" movement has opposed legal steps that would offer women the freedom to do something other than abort. Giving women accurate information, preventing young girls from being railroaded into abortions by strangers, regulations setting standards for abortion clinics-all have met with "pro-choice" opposition. What "pro-choicers" support is also revealing, including the coercive population programs of countries such as China.

The last and most revealing example of the deep-seated hostility many abortion supporters feel is illustrated by their vocal opposition to "mixing religion and politics." That attitude surfaced not with the rise of the "New Right" in the late 1970s but in the 1960s following the enormous success of the black pastor-led civil rights movement. A highly powerful and highly privileged group, abortion supporters fear any social change that might alter their advantaged circumstances. In their efforts to maintain the demographic status quo in spite of their low birth rate, Planned Parenthood is one of their most useful weapons. Christianity, on the other hand, is one of their most potent enemies.

The original research for this article began during graduate work in Biomedical History at the University of Washington's medical school.


1. Eleanor Dwight Jones, "To the Readers of Birth Control Review," Birth Control Review, Vol. XVII, No. 7 (July, 1933).

2. Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right (New York: Grossman, 1974, 1976), 156-57. Gordon is a feminist and a strong abortion supporter.

3. Sanger, Margaret, The Pivot of Civilization (Elmsford, NY: 1969 [reprint of the 1922 book]), 127.

4. Gordon, 136. Nineteenth-century feminists were genuinely concerned about all women and, virtually without exception, opposed to legalized abortion. The "race suicide" conflict that Theodore Roosevelt and others created between affluent and poor women led many affluent feminists to adopt attitudes similar to those of Sanger. Vocal support for abortion, however, did not become a part of feminist dogma until the late 1960s. Abortion is not even mentioned Betty Friedan's 1963 The Feminine Mystique.

5. Gordon, 137, 157-8, 295-96, 327-28.

6. Gordon, 287, 278-79.

7. Sanger, Pivot, 114-115.

8. Gordon, 304.

9. Gordon, 302-03.

10. Gordon, 303. Even today the organization treats "Aryan" Sweden as a model society even though its illegitimacy rate exceeds 50 per cent.

11. M. W. Perry, "The Sound of the Machine," The Freeman, Vol. 38, No. 7 (July, 1988), 257f.

12. Gordon, 351.

13. Robert C. Cook, "Birth Rates in Fascist Countries," Birth Control Review, Vol. XXIV, No. I (November 1939), 8.

14. "Praise for Nazis," Time (September 9, 1935), 20-21. Dr. Campbell was a fashionable Manhattan physician. Historically birth controllers alternate between arguments based on quality (1920s-30s) and quantity (the Malthusianism of the nineteenth century and today).

15. Gordon, 341.

16. Gordon, 290.

17. "Annual Meeting" and "The 1940 Campaign, "Birth Control Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2(December, 1939), 26.

18. Gordon, 344.

19. Gordon, 341. Sanger probably objected because she felt she had coined the expression "birth control."

20. Gordon, 352.

21. Alan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 316. The correspondence is from: Mark de Wolfe Howe, ed., The Holmes-Laski Letters, Vol . II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), 939-941. Buck v. Bell has never been overturned and Justice Blackmun's Roe v. Wade refers to it without criticism. Supporters of a Roe-like "right to privacy" seem little concerned about the fact that states can order a woman sterilized. A liberal law professor at the University of Washington became outraged when I suggested to him that someone needed to come up with a test case that would force the Supreme Court to rehear Buck.

22. Olden, Mariann S., History of the Development of the First National Organization for Sterilization (No publisher, no date), 109.

23. M. W. Perry, "How Planned Parenthood Got Its Name," International Review of Natural Family Planning, Vol. X, No. 3 (Fall 1986), 234.

24. Gordon, 332-33. Clarence Gamble is a Gamble of the Proctor and Gamble fortune-yet another hint of the enormous wealth that lies behind those who support Planned Parenthood and its agenda.

25. Gordon, 333.

26. Gordon, 353.

27. Sanger to Frank G. Boudreau, March 12, 1939. Gordon, 359.

28. Gordon, 329f. David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970), 258f.

29. Thorne, Christopher, Allies of a Kind. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 158-59. Before WWII, Charles W. Taussig had been FDR's "personal representative" in the West Indies and "chairman of a presidential commission to study the natives in the Caribbean Islands." Fulton Oursler, Jr., "Secret Treason," American Heritage (December, 1991), 55. Fortunately for the Puerto Ricans, FDR 's information about Nazi sterilization was flawed. For an accurate description of Nazi attempts at mass sterilization, see: Alexander, Leo. "Medical Science Under Dictatorship," The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol . 241, No. 2 (July 14, 1949), 41. For the medical report from the experiment see: Alexander Mitscherlich, Doctors of Infamy (Henry Schuman: New York, 1949) 136-137. The report notes: "If persons are to be rendered permanently sterile, this can be accomplished only by X-ray dosages so high that castration with all its consequences results." It concludes by noting: "It appears to be impossible to carry out such a program without the persons affected sooner or later ascertaining that they have been sterilized or castrated by means of X-rays."

30. "The Function of Sterilization," delivered at Vassar College, August 5, 1926. In Chase, Allan, The Legacy of Malthus, (New York: 1977), 658.

31. Strickland, Stephen P., ed., Population Crisis (Washington, DC, 1974), 74. These statistics, like all from Planned Parenthood, should be treated with skepticism. The birthrates of virtually all groups fell during the 1960s. The fall was merely more rapid among the affluent, secular elite and thus altered only the relative birth rates. The same arguments apply to global policy. Virtually all the Western European countries fund domestic programs intended to increase their birth rate while funding international programs to lower the birth rates of non-Caucasians. A genuine concern for the environment would place great stress on forcing down the birth rates of the affluent members of wealthy countries and pay little attention to the limited environmental impact of the Third World poor.

32. The bigotry that underlies support for Planned Parenthood is not the traditional and often irrational "skin color" racism. Its affluent supporters can easily afford to live in communities, belong to clubs, and send their children to schools separated from any racial or religious group they might dislike. What they are driven by is evil but quite rational. They dislike above all else the economic and social problems that disadvantaged groups create. This dislike ranges from white teenage girls and children with Down's Syndrome to the world's growing proportion of non-Caucasians.

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