Birth Control or Population Control for a “Defective Race”?

Since its conception, birth control has been a symbol of reproductive freedom for women. We learn that it gave women choices and control over their own bodies. Something not widely known, however, is how racism allowed birth control to be viewed as a solution to social problems, a way to decrease births of the “defective” black race, the poor, and the feeble-minded. Part of birth control’s popular spread to American women was its strong appeal for eugenicists. In a time where racial inequality was explained as a nature rather than controlled by who has power, many government-sponsored programs were put in place that both encouraged black women to use birth control and coerced many to be sterilized. Instead of a symbol of reproductive freedom, family-planning programs and birth control were used to regulate black women’s bodies and reproductive choices to create a more desirable society.

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The earliest writings on the eugenics movement were from an English scientist named Francis Galton, a distant cousin of Charles Darwin. The term comes from a Greek root word meaning “good in birth, which Galton coined in the year 1883. The idea was simple: society should encourage people with “superior” genes, and limit the procreation of those deemed unfit. In the United States, eugenics reached fertile ground. Both positive eugenics, which encouraged superior citizens to form unions and procreate, and negative eugenics, which aimed to prevent the socially inferior citizens from procreating, including the practice of compulsory sterilization. Eugenics remained a growing force during the early 20th century. With the coming of the Great Depression, interest in eugenics grew with the aims of reducing the amount of children that would likely need public assistance.

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Margaret Sanger, famed feminist, is known largely for the creation of Planned Parenthood and advocacy for women’s rights, but her alliance with eugenicists after World War I is often a story left untold. Her rhetoric surrounding birth control changed began to focus less on women’s rights for sexual gratification and focus on the “science” backing that the eugenics focus gave the movement. She argued that “uncontrolled fertility is universally correlated with disease, poverty, overcrowding, and transmission of heritable traits.” The “Negro Project”, Sanger’s 1938 birth control proposal, was defended in largely racist terms, geared to control black fertility. The proposal stated “The mass of Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes, even more than among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear children properly”, and succeeded in obtaining a $20,000 grant to bring birth control to southern blacks. Birth control was not pushed by eugenicists for furthering white supremacy, but many black leaders also advocated for birth control services for their own communities for reproductive health and family planning. Notably, W.E.B. Dubois had previously criticized the whole birth control movement for not focusing on the needs of black people. Whether Margaret Sanger was strategically using the rhetoric of racial superiority to garner the necessary support for women’s reproductive freedom or a racist is debated and discussed. No matter the answer, the history behind birth control and the black community has been complicated since the start, giving insight to how issues of race in many situations informs our experiences.

Source: Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts

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