The Great Plan
Did Margaret Sanger oppose abortion or support it? The question isn't easy to answer. We can find public expressions of distaste for abortion in many of her writings, but her phrasing in other areas of her work do not carry the same attitude. There is good reason to believe that she did not publicly advocate abortion for the simple reason that she was having a difficult enough time advocating birth control to a recalcitrant public.
Feminists like Victoria Woodhull, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sarah Norton, and Mattie Brinkerhoffn had all actively opposed abortion virtually within her lifetime (1860s-1870s). The American Medical Society had spent the forty years between 1840 and 1880 getting state legislatures to outlaw abortion. Consequently, American society was much more well-informed and adamantly opposed to the practice at the turn of the century than it would be in the 1960's, when feminists ignorant of their own history foolishly took up the cause before a public who had likewise forgotten why the procedure was made illegal.
Margaret Sanger had two primary goals in life: replace marriage with the public acceptance of sexually libertine adults like herself, and create a race of thoroughbreds through the use of eugenics. Sadly for her, she was up against a much more thoroughly informed society than Gloria Steinem and Faye Wattleton have to contend with. She played the hand she was dealt.
Clearly, she believed the use of contraceptives was the key to accomplishing both of her goals. Unfortunately, the 1873 Comstock laws, passed by a Protestant Congress, forbad the distribution of contraceptives. Medical and public opinion was against both contraceptives and abortion. She had to show that contraceptives should be legalized. The plan she hit upon is the one still used by Planned Parenthood today. She would play one off against the other.
In her public writings, she showed a nearly uniform distaste for abortion ("See? I'm mainstream like you are"). Then she pointed to contraception as the means to help women avoid abortion ("You should be enlightened and compassionate, like me."). That is, she leveraged the public's own abhorrence of abortion to position contraception as an acceptable middle way. Planned Parenthood continues to play this card in exactly this way today. "Without contraception, abortions will increase!" they cry cynically, knowing full well that the increased use of contraception inevitably increases abortion rates. But did she really dislike abortion?
Consider these slips of the pen:
"We know that abortion, when performed by skilled hands, under the right conditions brings almost no danger to the life of the patient ..." --Margaret Sanger. "Why Not Birth Control Clinics in America?" Birth Control Review, Volume III, Number 5 (May 1919), page 10.
"Infanticide did not go out of fashion with the advance from savagery to barbarism and civilization. Rather, it became, as in Greece and Rome, a recognized custom with advocates among leaders of thought and action. So did abortion, which some authorities regard as a development springing from infanticide and tending to supersede it as a means of getting rid of undesired children.
As progress is made toward civilization, infanticide, then, actually increased. This tendency was noted by Westermarck, who also calls attention to the conclusions of Fison and Howitt (in Kamilaroi and Kurnai). 'Mr Fison who has lived for a long time among uncivilized races,' says Westermarck, 'thinks it will be found that infanticide is far less common among the lower savages than among the more advanced tribes.' Following this same tendency into civilized countries, we find infanticide either advocated by philosophers and authorized by law, as in Greece and Rome, or widely practiced in spite of the law, civil and ecclesiastical." - Margaret Sanger, Women and the New Race, Chapter Two.
Chapter Seven of the same book begins "Are overburdened mothers justified in their appeals for contraceptives or abortions?" Unsurprisingly, she goes on to answer, "yes", noting that women have a right to abortion.
We know that Sanger saw birth control as the "pivot of civilization". In Women and the New Race, she describes increased rates of abortion and infanticide as marks of civilized society. Indeed, she spends long passages in the book describing how abortion is extremely common in numerous civilizations. That is, she builds a case for the legalization of abortion on one hand (all civilized countries do it), while decrying it as barbaric on the other.
She will do the same for abortion's medical consequences: in some writings, she claims it is very dangerous. At the same time, she claims the procedure is very common, asserting that between one and two million abortions are performed each year. Now, if abortion is so dangerous, how on earth is it possible that one to two million women a year are having abortions in a country whose population of fertile women is perhaps 20 million? The entire population of fertile women would be dead within a lifetime, if it were true.
She makes these logically contradictory claims for exactly the same reason she publicly opposes abortion. By emphasizing the dangers of abortion and artificially inflating the numbers, she creates a pressing need for a solution, and surprise! She just happens to have the solution at hand: contraception. Today, we would call it "stacking the deck". Once contraception is legalized, the game can be played again. She can even use the same argument. She just emphasizes the word "illegal" this time and point outs that legal abortions would be much safer.
This is all hypothesis, of course. It is possible Margaret Sanger was ambivalent about abortion. It is more likely that she was playing a cynical game in order to get the first part of her agenda in place. We like to think Hitler was an aberration, but he was not. He was a product of the scientific thinking of his age. He did not do anything that hundreds of intellectuals throughout Europe and America had not already suggested. He simply employed the practices recommended by the science of eugenics. Scientists today claim Nazis were unscientific. They weren't - not by the standards of the day. They were perfectly good biologists by the standards of the first twenty years of the 1900s. Hitler shows us the face of science when the guiding force of religion is actively purged away.
All eugenicists are ruthless, and Sanger was a eugenicist. World War II, the general abhorrence of Nazi eugenics policies and the Nuremburg trial declaration that abortion was a crime against humanity threw her timetable off. She spent the forties re-tooling her message for the post-WWII world. It was only after her death that the organization she founded was able to completely put in place the program she envisioned from the beginning: baptizing the genetically unfit into the unholy trinity of sterilization, contraception and abortion.