Senator Ted Cruz has become the first GOP presidential candidate to formally sign on to the efforts by a group of black pastors to get a bust of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger removed from an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The participants, who held a press conference Thursday, claim that Sanger’s appearance in the exhibit, called, “Struggle for Justice,” is offensive, because it places the reproductive rights trailblazer in a position of honor alongside such icons as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Thanks to the recent release of a series of controversial videos, Sanger’s link to Planned Parenthood would have likely been enough to elicit criticism of her inclusion in the exhibit. But Sanger also espoused some views about race and class that were, at times, deplorable.
So are Cruz and his fellow conservatives correct? Should black Americans find Sanger’s legacy, and the celebration of her legacy by the National Portrait Gallery and Planned Parenthood, offensive?
There is no question that Margaret Sanger, born in 1879, held some views that any reasonable person today would consider unconscionable. She viewed eugenics as sound policy and considered the Ku Klux Klan an appropriate ideological partner to advance her work as a family planning advocate. For these reasons, she’s not someone I would call a great person, particularly speaking as an African-American woman who is not from a wealthy background, meaning Sanger likely would have deemed me “unfit” to reproduce.
But that does not change the fact that all reasonable people should also be able to agree that America would be far worse off had Margaret Sanger never existed. The fact is before Sanger’s arrest in 1916 and subsequent jail sentence for aiding women in acquiring birth control, which resulted in a landmark legal ruling, most American woman did not have access to reliable forms of family planning.
This means that most American women lacked the ability to plan the number of children they would have. As a result, families were larger, poorer, and women were more likely to die earlier. Infant mortality rates were also high. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising. A woman lacking access to quality health care and nutrition is less likely to give birth to a healthy baby, or to be able to provide access to necessary nutrition or health care to a baby that was originally born healthy.
Besides the many health advantages American families experienced due to greater access to contraception thanks to the Sanger case, there have also been countless cultural benefits to society. As families have shrunk women’s participation in society has increased, as has the emergence of more women in positions of power. There are more women in colleges, corporate boardrooms and Congress. This shouldn’t come as a shock. After all, if a woman has eight children, the norm for 1800s America, she might have second thoughts about committing to the grueling schedule required to be a political candidate, particularly one who has to commute between Washington, D.C., and another state on a regular basis.
So with the exception of GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who is opposed to birth control and has a large family, it is highly likely that Republican candidates, including Senator Ted Cruz, owe a debt of gratitude to Margaret Sanger, whether they want to admit it or not. (Cruz, it should be noted, has two children, and his wife, Heidi, is a high-powered investment banker.)
For Cruz and other Sanger critics, her sins outweigh her contributions. But my question is: Who gets to decide that? While Sanger’s inclusion in the “Struggle for Justice” exhibit has drawn protests, Henry Clay’s inclusion in the “A Conversation About America” exhibit at the same institution has not.
Clay, like many of the men that shaped our nation, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. Which means if we removed the statues and portraits of every leader who contributed to this country in a meaningful way for gross moral failings, then the walls of the White House, the Capitol and most State Houses would be empty.
As a black American, I can say that while I am troubled by some of Margaret Sanger’s words, I would be remiss not to acknowledge her contributions to my community. Though some conservative critics seem to hold Sanger accountable for the high abortion rates within the black community since she founded the precursor to Planned Parenthood, Sanger’s own attitudes about abortion were complex, and not what we might call “pro-choice” today.
In 1918 she wrote, “While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.” Instead, she argued that government’s failure to not make contraception widely accessible to all women made the government culpable in any deaths resulting from abortion.
Sanger also railed against what she saw as the class inequality and hypocrisy evident in the multitude of family-planning options available to well-to-do white women versus what was available to the poor, many of them immigrants or black. Both of my grandmothers, born in the 1910s, were from large families. One of them was one of 14 children, the other was one of eight. They struggled in poverty as children, something they both talked about. When they decided to have families of their own, they were able to plan a size that worked for them, an option that had not been available to their mothers.
As a result, my parents became the first in their families to graduate from college, and I grew up a member of America’s middle class. This would not have been possible without Margaret Sanger’s contributions, which benefited millions of Americans from all walks of life. So if she doesn’t belong in American exhibit titled “Struggle for Justice,” then who does?