The Shocking Truth About Birth Control
Women’s rights activists have fought to promote birth control for decades. Some even promote birth control as a means of reducing abortion rates. No conception, no pregnancy, no abortion – it’s that simple, right?
But there’s one critical piece of information that birth control advocates gloss over time and time again: the disturbing history. The history of birth control traces back just over 100 years to its roots in systemic racism, ableism, and classism. This tool of discrimination is now celebrated as a breakthrough in reproductive healthcare.
How did this happen? Where did we go wrong?
The term “birth control” comes from the American eugenics movement of the early 1900s. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines eugenics as “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition”.
The term was coined by English anthropologist Francis Galton in the 1800s after becoming inspired by Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Galton used ‘eugenics’ to describe his idea of altering natural selection for the progression of human development. An elite group of wealthy, white Americans then introduced this philosophy to the U.S. to conceal and further their racially charged agenda beyond the abolition of slavery. Their main concern: preventing the loss of “racial purity” from interracial marriage in a post-slavery society.
Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League (now known as Planned Parenthood), was the driving force that took eugenics from a mere philosophy and put it into action. She was a leading pioneer of contraception as a means of population control through mass sterilization. Sanger and other eugenicists sought to weaponize birth control against the fertility of Black people, disabled people, unemployed people, and more to keep them from “reproducing their kind”. This objective is what drove the creation of modern-day contraception: control who can give birth, and who cannot.
"The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical and ideal to the final aim of eugenics."
Margaret Sanger, 1921
In 1939, the American Birth Control League merged with the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau to form the Birth Control Federation of America. But when the Nazis adopted eugenics to justify their treatment of Jews during the Holocaust, people in America became increasingly opposed to eugenics. Sanger and her cohorts realized this growing opposition and responded by switching up the verbiage in their group’s name. Marketing research efforts suggested they steer away from words like ‘control’ and instead choose positive words of reassurance, such as ‘planning’.
And in 1942, the Birth Control Federation of America became Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
In a 1950 letter to her friend and wealthy investor Katharine McCormick, Sanger suggested a need for a “simple, cheap contraceptive that could be used in poverty-stricken slums, jungles, and among the most ignorant people”. This idea led to the development of the birth control pill.
Today, Margaret Sanger is championed by her successors as a leader in “safe and effective” family planning. Although Planned Parenthood denounces her racist and eugenicist beliefs on their website, their Birth Control History Fact Sheet praises Sanger’s role in developing the birth control pill as “one of the greatest accomplishments of her career”.
Don’t women deserve better? Don’t they deserve to know the truth?
How can we put an end to the decades of harmful misinformation?
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American Experience. “Correspondence between Sanger and McCormick”. Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College. 27 October 1950. http://www.shoppbs.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/filmmore/ps_letters.html
“Birth Control Organizations – American Birth Control League History”. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, New York University. https://sanger.hosting.nyu.edu/aboutms/organization_abcl/#:~:text=In%201939%2C%20the%20ABCL%20merged,Planned%20Parenthood%20Federation%20of%20America.
Galton, Francis. “Francis Galton, Memories of My Life, Chapter XXI”, https://galton.org/books/memories/chapter-XXI.html.
Maafa 21. Directed by Mark Crutcher, Life Dynamics, 2009.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. “Birth Control – History of the Pill”. June 2015. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/1514/3518/7100/Pill_History_FactSheet.pdf
Sanger, Margaret. “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda”. The Birth Control Review, Dedicated To Voluntary Motherhood, Margaret Sanger, Editor, Volume V., No.10, October 1921, Page 5 (43). https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/health-nutrition/eugenic-value-birth-control-propaganda/
Tanghe, Koen B. “On The Origin of Species: The story of Darwin’s title.” Royal Society, 22 August 2018, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2018.0015