Planned Parenthood of Greater New York to remove late founder's name from center due to 'racist legacy'

In founding The Birth Control Review, Margaret Sanger tried to align herself with the American eugenics movement.
Margaret Sanger, who founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, speaks before a Senate committee to advocate for federal birth-control legislation in Washington, D.C., on March 1, 1934. Planned Parenthood of Greater New York is removing Sanger's name from a Manhattan clinic because of the birth control pioneer's ties to the eugenics movement, the organization announced Tuesday, July 21, 2020.AP file
By Elisha Fieldstadt

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York announced Tuesday that it would remove the name of the national organization's founder from its Manhattan clinic due to her "racist legacy" stemming from her well-documented connections with the eugenics movement.

Planned Parenthood's Manhattan Margaret Sanger Health Center will be renamed, and Planned Parenthood of Greater New York is working with the city to also rename an honorary street sign that marks “Margaret Sanger Square” at the corner where the center stands, PPGNY said in a statement.

The decision comes as a result of "a public commitment to reckon with its founder’s harmful connections to the eugenics movement," the statement said.

“The removal of Margaret Sanger’s name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood’s contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color,” said PPGNY board chair Karen Seltzer. “Margaret Sanger’s concerns and advocacy for reproductive health have been clearly documented, but so too has her racist legacy."

People walk past a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City on Nov. 28, 2015.Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Sanger, a nurse, established the first birth control clinic in the U.S, in New York City, and founded the American Birth Control League, which would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

A 2016 Planned Parenthood fact sheet on Sanger highlights her accomplishments and acknowledges her problematic views.

"While she was a woman of heroic accomplishments, Margaret Sanger had some beliefs, practices, and associations that we acknowledge, denounce, and work to rectify today. Her life story provides a portrait that is bold, fascinating, formidable, human, complicated, and flawed," the organization said in 2016.

In founding The Birth Control Review, Sanger tried to align herself with the American eugenics movement.

"As their most basic belief, eugenicists held that careful 'breeding' could improve the human race by limiting population growth and by reducing the frequency of undesirable genetic attributes, such as hereditary diseases. At their most malicious, eugenicists held that forced breeding or sterilization could either increase or decrease certain ethnic populations," the fact sheet said. "Eugenics was embraced across the political spectrum, from conservatives to socialists — so much was it embraced that it was taught in universities."

"In the 1920s, many eugenicists (who were largely white) applied their theory in racist fashion, falsely assuming that many ethnic groups were biologically inferior," but Sanger wrote in 1934 that if "by ‘unfit’ is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, that is an admirable gesture, but if ‘unfit’ refers to races or religions, then that is another matter, which I frankly deplore,” the fact sheet said.

Still, Sanger endorsed the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision that allowed states to sterilize citizens who were deemed "unfit" without their consent.

"NOTE: We denounce her endorsement of the Buck v. Bell decision as well as her involvement with the American eugenics movement and her adherence to some of its principles and values," the 2016 Planner Parenthood fact sheet said.

The 18-page biography also said Sanger "never forgot those who were marginalized through racial health inequities." She opened a family planning clinic in Harlem in 1930 that was lauded by Black leaders like W.E.B Du Bois and Malcolm X and "established birth control clinics in the rural, poor South to serve largely African American women," according to Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood has long been criticized for honoring Sanger. Most recently, a June 18 letter signed by more than 350 "current and former staffers of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York" and about 800 donors declared: "Planned Parenthood was founded by a racist, white woman."

The letter, from a group called Save PPGNY, also demanded the ouster of its chief executive, Laura McQuade, who was accused of ignoring and perpetuating racism in the workplace.

"While efforts have been made to undo some of the harm from institutional racism, many of these issues have worsened under McQuade’s tenure," the letter said. "After years of complaints from staff about issues of systemic racism, pay inequity, and lack of upward mobility for Black staff, highly-paid consultants were brought in three separate times to assess the situation. Each time, employees of color were brutally honest about their experiences, but nothing changed. It is not possible to do justice to the scope and gravity of this issue here."

McQuade was ousted in late June.

In an interview with The New York Times at the time, she said that while she thinks the allegations against her are not true, “this is not the time to refute them.”

"I feel nothing but good will toward the organization and I want them to succeed," she said. "The work that we have undertaken over the last three years together has been some of the most important work of my life."

Last year, PPGNY established the Reviving Radical initiative, a "commitment and framework for holding long overdue dialogues and uplifting a vision for repair and transformation that communities of color and reproductive justice leaders have been calling on for decades."

One of the goals of Reviving Radicals was to understand "how our organizational history and perceptions of Margret Sanger have and continue to impact communities of color," according to PPGNY, which said more than 300 New Yorkers of color have participated in conversations about the issue.

Tuesday's announcement "reflects the first of many organizational shifts to address Sanger's legacy and system of institutional racism, which negatively impacts the well-being of patients, staff and PPGNY’s broader communities," PPGNY's statement said.

Plans for the new name of the center and the square will soon be announced.

"While this comes at a time when the entire nation is reckoning with its sordid past and present realities of racial injustice, I am even more encouraged that this symbolic gesture is also accompanied by a deeper commitment to take even bolder steps toward institutional transformation,” said Reviving Radical commissioner Lynn Roberts. "May this organization’s realization of these mandates serve as a guide to other organizations embarking on becoming anti-racist organizations not only in name, but in practice.”

Elisha Fieldstadt