Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Defending Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood’s Founder

To the Editor:

Re “I’m the Head of Planned Parenthood. We’re Done Making Excuses for Our Founder” (Op-Ed,, April 17):

If Margaret Sanger is to be judged by her associations, as Alexis McGill Johnson insists, it must be known that Sanger enjoyed the support of the most prominent African-Americans of her day.

The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church sat on the board of the clinic she opened in Harlem. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women and later the highest ranking person of color to serve in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, encouraged Sanger’s efforts to bring birth control to the rural South when New Deal accommodations to white segregationist senators kept largely Black workers in agriculture and domestic service from receiving any benefits of Social Security or public health.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder and longtime head of the N.A.A.C.P., also endorsed Sanger’s work. They both believed that ability and talent, not race, class or creed, should determine opportunity in a truly democratic society.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later had this to say:

“There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts …She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning.”

Sanger addressed Ku Klux Klan women and staged high-profile debates with white segregationists, not to endorse their views, but to challenge them.

From supporters of reproductive justice, we deserve a historical reckoning that fairly confronts the complex circumstances of the past, not a response that callously dismisses them.

We need to hear more about the innovative approaches the organization now intends to take. It won’t succeed just by demonizing its founder.

Ellen Chesler
East Hampton, N.Y.
The writer is the author of a biography of Margaret Sanger and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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