Do Liberals Owe An Apology to the Victims of Sterilization? The Case of Margaret Sanger

tags: racism, liberalism, sterilization, eugenics, Margaret Sanger

Ms. Reed is the author of the newly published Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words (Barricade Books).

Sterilization--or more particularly, compulsive sterilization--became an issue in America with the rise therein of Eugenics, the name given by the Englishman Francis Galton in 1883 to his newly created science of inquiry. Eugenics had as its purpose race betterment. Eugenics began by asking questions: Why were men what they were? What caused poverty? Why did blue eyes persist in generations along with alcoholism and insanity? The infant science proposed to answer these questions by, first, gathering extensive numerical data. Almost immediately, the data indicated that the breeding of degenerate individuals must be curtailed.

Sterilization was an obvious means, and while many felt that proper education would inspire defective persons to forego parenting voluntarily, more knowing heads divined that, if the human race was to be saved from the furtive, fertile degenerates, sterilization would probably have to be compulsory.

The first state in America to pass a compulsory sterilization law was Indiana, this due in large part to the efforts of Dr. Harry Sharp, an Indiana prison physician, who found in the science of Eugenics the assurance that sterilization would relieve excessive sexuality. According to Sharp, his patients were left mentally and physically improved after the procedure and grateful for the assistance. Freed from an overactive sexual drive, these men could be released from institutional confinement and returned to their communities where they could resume active, normal lives. Many of them had requested the operation, a point that was to be reiterated in future sterilization studies.

The Eugenicists, however, were less concerned with the benefits enjoyed by those sterilized than the assurance that the delinquents and feebleminded would not reproduce themselves--a matter of grave concern as this new science began to document the insatiable lust and the resulting fecundity of the feebleminded and the insane. Government officials and the taxpaying public gasped in horror at new statistics that showed the insane and the feebleminded population exploding, their institutions already filled to capacity, and an unlimited requirement for yet more beds in the future. The unbridled sexuality of degenerates was posing a threat to the nation that more than justified compulsory sterilization.

One of the leading eugenicists in America and the national expert on sterilization was Harry Laughlin, second in command at the well-funded Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, which had been organized in 1905 for in-depth study and support of this new science. Laughlin and his work had the approval of U.S. presidents in and out of office--the less than intellectual William Howard Taft, the extremely intellectual Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Theodore Roosevelt, along with university presidents and their faculties and important people from every walk of American life. But the courts did not share in this approval: Laws permitting compulsory sterilization, which had been passed at the beginning of the century, were by the end of the decade being declared unconstitutional.

Recognizing the need for more carefully structured laws, Laughlin wrote the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law and printed it in 1914. (In 1933, it was to serve as a model for the racial cleansing laws of Nazi Germany.) Meanwhile, for Laughlin, it became merely a matter of finding the right test case to go before the Supreme Court.

This was found in the state of Virginia, where in 1924 legislators had passed the Eugenical Sterilization Act. The Act was a carefully written response to the rapid growth in that state of the insane and feebleminded, whose numbers were quickly outstripping available facilities. In Lynchburg, Emma Buck had been institutionalized as feebleminded for a number of years at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, when her daughter, Carrie Buck, gave birth at seventeen years of age to an illegitimate daughter, Vivian. As the mother of an illegitimate child, Carrie was immediately identifiable as feebleminded and lustful, and the experts as quickly certified that Vivian was, if not lustful, feebleminded as well, this testified to by Harry Laughlin (who did not personally see the child). With feeblemindedness and lust so clearly inherited, Carrie Buck was an obvious candidate for sterilization. Carrie was appointed a guardian, and Buck v. Bell (John Bell the name of the Virginia Colony's superintendent) wound its way through the courts. In 1927 the Supreme Court handed down its decision, eight to one, allowing compulsory sterilization of Carrie Bell, and by extension, asserting the constitutionality of compulsory sterilization.

The opinion was written by Justice Olive Wendell Holmes, who was known for his progressive willingness to incorporate current science into his decisions and to respond with contemporary measures to contemporary conditions. Holmes was a student of Eugenics, and he made his own opinion about the necessity of compulsory sterilization perfectly clear in the Court's opinion, which concluded, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." News of the decision brought no particular response from press or public.

Holmes's opinion appeared consonant with overall general respect for Eugenics. Courses on Eugenics were being offered by Harvard, Brown, Columbia, and Cornell, and in 1928, Eugenics was a separate topic in some 376 separate college courses. Public approval of Eugenics concepts was intact in 1937, when a Fortune poll showed that 63 percent of the American population agreed that habitual criminals should be sterilized, and 66 percent agreed that mental defectives should be.

In the decade between 1927 and 1937, Margaret Sanger was running the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in Lower West Side Manhattan. Some years earlier, in 1916, in an act of non-violent resistance, Sanger had opened the first Birth Control clinic in America at 46 Amboy Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn, making available for ten days--until she was closed down by authorities--contraceptive information to poor women. For her trouble, she was sent to jail for thirty days.

By 1923, laws governing contraception information had became somewhat modified, and in January of that year Sanger dared to open the Clinical Research Bureau. In 1927, the clinic was flourishing, a welcome refuge, where women who could pay as well as women who could not pay were given information and supplies to control their fertility. Margaret Sanger did not draw a salary, and often, the regular Bureau deficits were paid for by her generous husband. The advantages that birth control provided to women poor and rich, ill and healthy, were innumerable. Not only were women saved the horrors of multiple births and the poverty and ill health that accompany uncontrolled fertility, but children enjoyed the privilege of being wanted children, whose parents were able to afford them.

In her direct assistance to one half of the human race, Margaret Sanger offered to women their inalienable rights and their individual power, a power not to be manipulated by federal, state, or municipal laws -- the power to bring into the world her children only when it was right for the mother and for the child, the power truly to better the race. As Sanger says, "Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment."

Accepting the science of the time that claimed sterilization saved the feebleminded, who were not capable of parenting, from themselves and from a life of institutional confinement, it seemed only common sense to Margaret Sanger to approve an operation that had no effects on the individual's life other than to prevent conception. Yet Margaret Sanger had a problem--as Justice Holmes did not--with sterilization as compulsory and with "the difficulties presented by the idea of 'fit' and 'unfit.' Who is to decide this question?" she asked.

Having worked as a nurse in the Lower East Side tenements among those most likely to suffer compulsory sterilization--a far cry from the protected offices of an attorney and Supreme Court justice--Margaret Sanger was aware, as Justice Holmes apparently was not, of the real causes of the ills that sterilization was supposed to address, noting that sterilization did not "touch those great masses, who through economic pressure populate the slums and there produce in their helplessness other helpless, diseased and incompetent masses, who overwhelm all that eugenics [and by extension, sterilization] can do among those whose economic condition is better."

Today, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes is recalled with superlatives that praise "a rarely beautiful life," "his broad humanity of feeling," his "rare genius for the law." He is regarded as a "figure for legend," enjoying "a deserving fame," "the greatest judge of the English-speaking world." To the knowledge of this researcher, no one has apologized for Justice Holmes's decision that sterilized Carrie Buck, a victim of rape, and that left thousands more the victims of compulsory sterilization.

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Charles William Stewart - 5/28/2007

Oliver Wendall Holmes was my great uncle. Had I known he was that fucking demented I would never have wasted so much time thinking he was an upstanding guy. I'm just sickened that he was such an asshole.

I would like to apologize to everyone for the demented notions my Great Uncle had about Eugenics programs being a "good" idea. Forced sterilization is sick and should be prohibited by Constitutional Amendment. Furthermore, our government owes all those victims of this tragedy a huge apology.

noname - 10/28/2003

It is probably a wise choice to investigate the psychiatric hospitals in the area as to their current practices with regard to the treatment and "use" of patients by political and judicial groups.

Bryan Murphy - 9/16/2003


Harold - 9/9/2003

Perhaps one should require a license to procreate.

Josh Greenland - 9/5/2003

I did err in saying that John Ray's URLed article didn't support its claim that Margaret Sanger was a proponent of forced sterilization. The Plan for Peace article at the bottom of the page does support that claim. But the article still doesn't support any real connection between Sanger and the Nazis, who were anti-feminist and anti-birth control (for "Aryan" people).

Interestingly, the Plan for Peace article was published in 1932, a year before the Nazis got into power. I wonder for how long after 1933 Sanger and other pro-eugenics American liberals were still calling for "a rigid policy of segregation and sterilization." German Naziism caused major changes in American politics. Among other effects, it discredited eugenics, anti-semitism and to a lesser degree racism to the present day. I'm sure many intelligent, educated people, including some liberals, own copies of the Bell Curve, but unlike in the 1930s, most of them are now unwilling to publicly admit any sympathy for that kind of thinking.

Lynn Thompson - 9/5/2003

John Ray, can you please supply a citation for "Hitler warmly praised our Margaret?"
Thank you,
Lynn Thompson

Derek Catsam - 9/4/2003

i'd like to second John Doe's post and add something else. It seems rather odd to taint someone simply because someone admired them or admired something about them. Castro was a Yankee fan. While there are lots of reasons to loathe the Yankees, are they all Communists because a communist dictator liked them? I've heard that Robert Mugabe likes ice cream, that Geoffrey Dahmer once read and enjoyed Hemmingway, that Idi Amin enjoyed soccer, and that Charles Taylor loves jazz music. So I guess that those drawing something from Hitler's (alleged) appreciation for Sanger are going to throw out their Ben and Jerrys, burn their Farewell to Arms, stop watching soccer (football) and destroy their Miles Davis albums? It would make as much sense as some of what I've been reading here.

Nancy - 9/4/2003

Most of "My Life As an Attorney" (an antique movie not worth renting) has been invested in representing those who are disabled in many ways: physically, cognitively, emotionally, economically. Other discussion threads on this issue are so extreme that they obscure the more subtle and scary issues I've experienced in almost any interaction between the law and the disabled. On the one hand, defending persons in legal proceedings challenging their competence, I have been excoriated for "denying" such individuals the "help" that they (often obviously) needed by expressing their wishes for greater freedom of choice. But I have also defended homes (from houses to hospitals) against charges that they have failed to protect persons with mental retardation and/or mental illness from sexual contact (ranging from hand-holding, of course, to intercourse itself)and its consequences (from pregnancy to AIDS) which they should allegedly have prevented, because the individual, by virtue of their disease, is incapable of saying "no". There is truth here; people do have psychiatric disorders that may manifest as very seductive sexual behavior. They may be deeply humiliated by descriptions of their own behavior recounted to them when they are not in an actively psychotic phase. And not surprisingly, persons with mental retardation experience sexual urges like us all, with probably more difficulty in predicting what sexual interaction may entail. Who's making the rules here? Who decides when sex is good, or not, for other people?

This article's "apology demand" is a self-created "event". The Buck v. Bell decision is one of many jurisprudential embarassments that reveal the Supreme Court to be a wavy mirror. It reflects in its own distorted way a society that aspires to recognize the fundamental equality of all human beings. Aspirations being by definition unreacheable, our society has stumbled painfully trying to get there, and the Court has justified and explained many of our country's wrong turnings.

The Bell decision quoted here is probably Holmes' very most embarassing. But the US Supreme Court has also ruled that serving members of different ethnic groups in "separate, but equal" facilities sufficed for Constitutional purposes. Oops! The Court has upheld Illinois in preventing a female law school graduate from practising law on the grounds that somebody needs to stay home and raise the kids -- and we all know who that is! In each of these cases and many others, the Court has simply noted in subsequent decisions that society has moved on -- hopefully, to a higher level. It has recognized those changes by "reversing itself" in a decision repudiating their earlier (and now, to us, offensive) position.

Screw the apologies that may be due -- look at the issues in your own community today. Obviously blind persons and deaf persons may have children, even if their disability is inherited. And we know what at what technical "age" someone can say "yes". But what level of intelligence do we require for individuals to consent to sex? Want an IQ number? Want to ask the parents (who will say no until Doomsday)? If they do have sex, how smart must people be before "we" allow "them" to have kids? (whew).

Holmes' biggest mistake was in assuming that we know what an imbecile is. Once you accept that it is dangerous territory making other people's sexual decisions, and that in many cases someone does involuntarily have that responsibility, you enter a deeper quagmire than this article describes.

Assuming you know who a "liberal" is, no apologies are due in my opinion if you vote. If you vote, you ultimately control who sits on most federal court benches and considers these issues on your behalf and tries to reflect your values. Hopefully you elect leaders who give enough money to hire skillful, ethical individuals to help the disabled make some of these decisions in a way that reflects their humanity as well as the reality of their situation. The folks you elect appoint reasonable judges, and their decisions reflect the realities of our society along with the ideals of our government. The courts will in turn recognize, along with the rest of us (including Margaret Sanger) when we have made mistakes. The errors of the past matter not. The issue is alive today, and it will be for so long as any human being controls the life, sexual and otherwise, of those we have deemed less "able."

John Doe - 9/4/2003

Josh Greenland is right, the URL'd article doesn't prove Hitler praised Sanger. Even if he did and if everything else in the article is correct it seems to be primarily an attack on Planned Parenthood based on the following facts and conclusion:

FACTS: Margaret Sanger formed Planned Parenthood.
Margaret Sanger had views on the sterilization of "undesireables" comprable to those of Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler admired Margaret Sanger.
(IMPLIED) CONCLUSION: Decent people should have nothing to do with Planned Parenthood (as users of services or as donors or volunteers).

BUT, if the above conclusion is correct, isn't the following also correct:

FACTS: Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company.
Henry Ford had views on Jews comprable to those of Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler admired Henry Ford.
CONCLUSION: Decent people should have nothing to do with the Ford Motor Company (as purchasers of vehicles, employees or shareholders).

OR, we could just judge organizations by the positions and activites of their present day leaders and membership.

(BTW, Whatever Hitler may have thought of Sanger - assuming he even knew who she was- there is absolutely no doubt that he greatly admired Henry Ford.)

cogito - 9/4/2003

Yes, liberals owe an apology to thiose who were forcibly sterilized. So do conservatives. So does anyone who had any part in allowing forcible sterilization to go on. But as many people have pointed out, what the hell is the connection to liberalism per se? Was Sanger "a liberal?" Certianly not in the modern sense. Was eugenics a "liberal" movement? No way. If we consider someone like Franz Boas a liberal, well, he opposed eugenics. How about Jane Addams? Dewey? It's a long list--many progressive liberals regarded Eugenics as a stalking horse for nativist racism and had nothing to do with it.

In the 20s, liberal groups like the KKK liked eugenics, and so did elected officials who voted to restrict immigration. This title is ridiculous. But here i am writing a response, so i guess it worked

Josh Greenland - 9/4/2003

Sorry, but I don't see any direct connection between Margaret Sanger and the Nazis, including Hitler. And the author of the URLed article seems to lie in a couple of places, at one point prefacing an quotation by saying that Hitler praised Sanger, when Sanger's name doesn't come up in the quotation, and in saying that Sanger was an advocate of forced sterilization, while Miriam Reed's article states that Sanger had a problem with forced sterilization.

The religious right hates Margaret Sanger because they hate her advocacy of abortion and her providing contraception to women. To them, "abortion is murder", so advocating abortion is enabling mass murder, and mass murder is genocide, so abortion advocates are Nazis. Maybe Sanger did in some way support forced sterilization, maybe she liked the Nazis' eugenics program and maybe Hitler did praise her, but I don't think so, and that clumsy smear piece won't convince any objective person that any of those things are true.

John Ray - 9/3/2003

See here:


for more on Hitler's debt to Sanger and Americans generally for his eugenic inspirations

John Ray - 9/3/2003

Hitler warmly praised our Margaret so I think she must have overcome her scruples about compulsion.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/2/2003

Mr. Gundersted, Not at all! Since, as you will notice, Mr. Clarke makes his comments and moves on, without acknowledging any criticism of what he said elsewhere and earlier, I was simply trying to catch his attention before he slipped away yet again about a matter that he had said earlier and elsewhere. I find it irritating that he besmearches the reputations of dozens of historians whose work appears here without acknowledging any challenge to what he has said. His insult appeared in the discussion of Daniel Pipes's article about Palestinian refugees and was posted on 31 August 2003. I put its words in quotation marks, but only now supply the reference. I agree with Professor Chamberlain's comments and believe that John Doe has done us all a favor by contextualizing matters.

Darryl Gundersted - 9/2/2003

I agree that the title given to Ms. Reed's article is misleading, regardless of whether it is her title or not. According to the FAQ here: "HNN was created to give historians the opportunity to reach a national audience on issues of public concern". Since Mr. Luker's comment addresses neither the article nor its title, perhaps he seeks thereby a change in HNN policy, e.g. to discourage rather than encourage a discussion of historical issues ?

Josh Greenland - 9/1/2003


Oscar Chamberlain - 9/1/2003

I don't know if Clarke has dropped poop or pearls elsewhere, but his point about the title given this article is correct. It suggests a conclusion that the article simply does not draw.

It's inaccurate, and for that reason alone worth criticing.

If someone with HNN had wished to use the article to bring up the relationship between liberalism and eugenics, then that person should have written a new article and alluded to this one.

As it is, John Doe has it about right. The assumptions behind eugenics were considered good science by a large swath of the educated public at the time. Yes, an important early proponent of birth control supported it, but she was hardly alone, and it was not eugenics that got her arrested.

John Doe - 9/1/2003

The terms "liberal" and "conservative" WERE in common use in the 1920s with about the same meaning they have today. But if liberals need to apologize to the victims of these misguided policies so do conservatives. As the article itself notes: "News of the decision (Buck v. Bell) brought no particular response from press or public." Exactly, EVERYONE thought the decsion, and eugenics generally, was a good idea. Eight justices supported Holmes'opinion. The one who did not, Pierce Butler, was admittidly a conservative, but he did not even bother to write an opinion, so we don't know why he voted as he did. Chief Justice (and former President) Taft and Justices McReynolds and Sutherland who were certainly conservatives, both by the standards of then and of today, supported Holmes' position. I've seen the argument about how "liberals" put over the sterilization laws before, but the most state legislatures at the time they were adopted were hardly hotbeds of liberalism. And no one has come up with any ringing quotes from early 20th Century conservatives denouncing them.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/1/2003

Mr. Clarke,
Are you the expert in semiotics who goes by the same name? I simply wonder what credentials entitle you to make your comment of yesterday that "prominent and acclaimed historians (of every political persuasion) tend to shun HNN." Have you examined the credentials of the authors of this week's group of articles on HNN? Do they not qualify? And how do you? Or do you just troll the net, depositing your poop here and there and accepting no responsibility for it?

Peter K. Clarke - 9/1/2003

The anachronistic term "Liberals" appears nowhere in this excerpted article. I wonder how many authors are aware that their history works are being exploited for partisan polemical purposes in this manner.