Historical “GOTCHA!” and the Planned Parenthood Sting

As the religious right’s chorus builds in its call for the government to defund Planned Parenthood, it’s worth taking a look at the most recent feather in its cap, and the decades-long effort to discredit PP with allegations of racism.

One of the more dubious practices of modern journalism is the relentless search to catch a politician in a mistake, a statement that implies a racial or ethnic prejudice (however faint), or just a stupid remark. When a prominent figure is nailed in such a manner, the implication is that that person’s true character has now been revealed. A candidacy or a lifetime reputation can be ignored. Unfortunately, this practice can negate decades of achievement. The late Governor Romney of Michigan said that the Johnson administration had “brainwashed” him. That one remark was the end of his presidential aspirations. Gov. Howard Dean’s scream was the end of his.

Right to life adherents have been retroactively applying this process to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger for decades. If you can find a racist remark, the thinking goes, then all the achievements of this pioneering feminist can be ignored. The latest round of the “gotcha” game against Sanger was spawned by an undercover investigation conducted by UCLA’s Christian campus newspaper, The Advocate, interested in a “gotcha” of Planned Parenthood itself.

But what does a more complete view of Sanger reveal? While it is true that Margaret Sanger sought to ally her fledgling movement with the eugenics movement of the time, she did this both because they were one of the vanishingly few organizations who made it respectable to talk about sex and reproduction and because she desperately needed medical allies for birth control. This was, after all, a time when most physicians were personally opposed to it. It was also a time when eugenics was publicly respected, when 75% of American colleges had departments of eugenics. Today, after the horrors of Nazism, and after decades of forced sterilization, the idea of selective breeding of humans looks demonic. But in its time, it must be recalled, it was a popular idea. Caught in the zeitgeist of the era, she made some statements that were, with the benefit of hindsight, indefensible.

But she was no more racist than the society of her time; which was racist enough, God knows. A big deal has been made about the fact that she spoke to the women of the KKK. Why would she do that? Because they wanted to hear about contraception. She said she would go anywhere to talk about that, and she did. Why should these women be denied knowledge? Racist or not, they faced the same dangers in childbirth as anyone else.

And what made her different from the orthodox believers in eugenics is where she located the decisions about bearing children. For many of the eugenicists, a woman’s first reproductive duty was to the State. Sanger flatly disagreed. She said that a woman who understands and can manage her reproductive functions is the one who should decide when to have children. She insisted it was their right; that reproductive decisions should always be in the hands of women. As far as the future improvement of humanity was to be achieved, she thought that would come through the cumulative decisions of individual women. Her compassion was for women—of any color.

When we dump the historical gotchas and look clearly at figures like Sanger, warts and all, a conversation can take place. Until then, finger pointing and cries of gotcha will reign.