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Eugenics & Birth Control: A Fine Line to Mass Sterilization

Published onDec 01, 2022
Eugenics & Birth Control: A Fine Line to Mass Sterilization


Birth Control Review, November 1923: Unwanted babies are weights and chains. | Image Source: “The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger on Birth Control”, Birth Control Review November 1923 accessed from NYU.

Throughout my chapter I will discuss one of the things that may have helped to spark the birth control movement. Eugenics, the practice of “breeding out” any supposed undesirable characteristics of the human population, may have played a key role in popularizing birth control. In no way, shape or form am I trying to prove that this was true, but the objective is to give my reader a different view on how the birth control movement might have been started. My primary source focuses on the concept of birth control, and the different uses of it. This source also dives deep into the history behind the Eugenics society. In the late 19th century, a society or league called the Federation of Neo-Malthusian was formed. Its purpose was to “Spread among the people, by all practicable means, a knowledge of the law of population, of its consequences, and of its bearing upon human conduct and morals.”1 The league also states that it wants to “urge upon the medical profession in general, and upon hospitals and public medical authorities in particular, the duty of giving instruction in hygienic contraceptive methods to all married people who desire to limit their families, or who are in any way unfit for parenthood; and to take any other steps which may be considered desirable for the provision of such instruction.”2 In the beginning of the birth control movement, societies like this believed that birth control should be used to limit families and should only be given to women who are married or about to be married.

Eugenics Society Lecture at the Kansas Fair. | Image Source: “Eugenic and Health Exhibit, Fitter Families Contest, Kansas Free fair”, American Eugenics Society Records, 1925 in CNN article. CNN article on Eugenics

These beliefs started to slowly transition into more extreme ideas. People started to think that by “decreasing the quantity of offspring it at the same time improved their quality.”3 Fish and certain mammals produce high quantities of offspring, however, only a few survive to maturity. This has led groups of people to believe that a high birth rate is equivalent to a high death rate. Birth control was used to prevent this. When birth control was introduced, Malthusian beliefs carried over into the Eugenics movement.  Many members of the Malthusian league were early recruits of the Eugenic society.4 Many people who were prominent birth control leaders were a part of the Eugenics movement, including Marie Stopes, Charles Vickey Drysdale, and Margaret Sanger. The name Margaret Sanger may sound familiar as she is one of Planned Parenthood’s founders.

Margaret Sanger founded planned parenthood for a multitude of reasons. One of the reasons is that she wanted to distribute birth control easily and educate women about its use. Sanger believed that birth control could be a way of liberating women from the inability to limit their families, which was an obstacle to their productivity. This, however, was not the only thing she believed about the usage of birth control.5 In an interview with Mike Wallace, Margaret Sanger exclaimed, “I am a born humanitarian. I don’t like to see people suffer. I don’t like to see cruelty even to this day and in nursing you see a great deal of cruelty and unnecessary suffering.”6 Sanger thought birth control to be a way of ending a woman's hardship. However, her existing beliefs may have caused birth control to take on more of a daunting role.

Sanger is responsible for starting the American Birth Control League in 1921, which eventually became a part of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. She also opened the first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1916, which gave low income and minority women access to birth control. Birth control was targeted towards minorities as a way of preventing them from continuing their bloodline. Her involvement in Eugenics, which led to the 1927 Supreme Court decision that allowed "defective" persons to be sterilized, helped to solidify, and popularize the birth control movement in the early 1900s.7 “Defective” persons included ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, the urban poor, and LGBTQ individuals. The Eugenics movement escalated very swiftly and moved from the distribution of birth control to the sterilization of minorities. The forced sterilization of these women became extremely popular, and the Eugenics movement grew quite quickly because of it. The Eugenics movement caused the forced sterilization to become legalized in about 35 of the 50 U.S. states.

Legalization of sterilization because of the supreme court decision. | Image Source: “Eugenical Sterilization Map of the United States” 1935 in PBS article. PBS article on sterilization in the US


Quotes from Margaret Sanger

Sanger believed that the United States should “keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, Insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.”8

Sanger advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.”9

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