October 16 marks the 100-year anniversary of Planned Parenthood. The group's founder, Margaret Sanger, was a birth control pioneer. But she didn't view “birth control” (a term she helped coin) in the same way as people today. “Birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defective,” Sanger wrote in her 1920 book Woman and the New Race.
Sanger, indeed, was a eugenicist who wanted to prevent the procreation of people she deemed “unfit,” such as many who were poor, sick, and disabled. She urged the government to “restrain, either by force or persuasion, the moron and the imbecile from producing his large family of feeble-minded offspring.” She said that stopping “the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective” was “the most urgent problem today.”
Sanger's view of humanity was expressed in a passage from one of her essays (titled “The Need for Birth Control in America”):
In his last book, Mr. [H.G.] Wells speaks of the meaningless, aimless lives which cram this world of ours, hordes of people who are born, who live, who die, yet who have done absolutely nothing to advance the race one iota. Their lives are hopeless repetitions. All that they have said has been said before; all that they have done has been done better before. Such human weeds clog up the path, drain up the energies and the resources of this little earth. We must clear the way for a better world; we must cultivate our garden.
This is a significant part of the vision with which Planned Parenthood was founded. It is a view that rejects the good of human life as such. It says that some lives—the lives of those who are “defective,” who do not contribute, who are “human weeds”—are “meaningless” and not worth living. It denies the fundamental equality and importance of all members of the human family.
Planned Parenthood's eugenic attitude (later couched more in terms of population control) lived on for decades. Alan Guttmacher (for whom the Guttmacher Institute is named), for example, became president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) in 1962. Guttmacher was a long-time eugenicist and former vice president of the American Eugenic Society. He warned in a speech (in 1942) that “the mentally retarded and the mentally defective” are “insidiously … replacing the people of normal mentality.” Guttmacher hoped in 1969 that “some day a way of enforcing compulsory birth control will be feasible.”
Now, one-hundred years after its founding, Planned Parenthood doesn't talk about eugenics any more. But that doesn't mean that Sanger's views are completely absent from the work of the organization.
Today PPFA is, by a large margin, the leading practitioner of abortion in the United States. It performs about a third of a million abortions each year. Planned Parenthood vigorously opposes any limits on abortion and actively supports political candidates who champion unfettered and publicly funded abortion—and who will funnel hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually back into Planned Parenthood's coffers. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) likewise promotes abortion all around the world.
This current work is, in important ways, even more troubling than the eugenic efforts of Sanger:
That today's Planned Parenthood rejects human equality is not debatable. It is is undeniably true because the embryos and fetuses whose lives are systematically and violently ended by Planned Parenthood are, as a matter of biological fact, members of the species Homo sapiens. (Indeed, many defenders of abortion argue that unborn children are human “non-persons” who simply don't matter in the same way as the rest of us.)
Over the last 100 years, Planned Parenthood's language and rhetoric have certainly become less inegalitarian. But its actual work has become more grotesque. Planned Parenthood doesn't overtly tout inequality any more, but its lethal actions presuppose it.
This denial of the moral equality of all human beings is perhaps the most important thread that runs through the organization's history. From Sanger to Guttmacher to today's no-limits abortion advocacy, Planned Parenthood has stood—and continues to stand—for the proposition that some human lives are inferior to others.