A Tough Pill to Swallow: The Racist Foundations of the Birth Control Movement

The language we use when talking about birth control, especially as it relates to reproductive justice, is the result of a troubled history. When Margaret Sanger, famous activist and namesake of the SoHo location of Planned Parenthood in New York City, celebrated birth control propaganda in the early 20th century she commented on its “eugenic and civilizational value” and the ways in which it impacts the “quality of the generations of the future.” Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League, Planned Parenthood’s precursor, was one of many who supported the early birth control movement and, unfortunately, aided racist elites in their project for population control.

Now and Then

The regulation of people’s reproductive decisions, at the structural and systemic level, leads to countless effects on our everyday lives. If and when people have children, if and how people terminate pregnancies, and the health of our physical bodies are all factors that are heavily influenced by birth control and the legislation surrounding it. Since the 1920s, eugenicists and birth control advocates have worked together to paint a particular picture of sexuality, parenthood, and family dynamics in the United States’ political imagination that was, and remains, racist and classist. (One could argue that this phenomenon is global but for the intents and purposes of this article the focal point will remain national.)

In the United States, more than 99 percent of women aged 15–44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method. Roughly 60 percent of all women of reproductive age are currently using a contraceptive method. These figures represent approximately 61 million women-identified, reproductive-aged people whose reproductive and sexual lives are directly impacted by legislation. These figures also, however, represent the normalization of a product meant to “weed out the unfit” in “poverty-stricken slums, jungles and among the most ignorant people.”

Sanger referred to the unbalanced rates of births to “fit” versus “unfit” parents as “the greatest present menace to civilization”—and the claim was doused in racial undertones. By the mid 20th century, government-sanctioned forced sterilizations plagued Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities across the country.

Between 1930-1970, the highest rate of sterilizations in the world, at the time, impacted a third of Puerto Rico’s female population of reproductive age. To some, sterilization was “a necessary public health intervention that would protect society from deleterious genes and the social and economic costs of managing ‘degenerate stock’” and persuading or mandating people of certain backgrounds, particularly Black or Latinx and poor, to become sterilized was a trend. By 1976, roughly 27 percent of all women indigenous to the United States had been sterilized and, according to Dr. Connie Uri, a Choctaw physician, it was as if their “bloodlines [were] being stopped” in the form of genocide. Dorothy Roberts argues that birth control shaped “the meaning of reproductive freedom” and “became a means of controlling a population rather than a means of increasing women’s reproductive autonomy.”

Race, Rights, and Family Planning

To this day, race-related disparities in contraceptive use can arguably be traced back to the early days of birth control propaganda and forced sterilization projects. Some argue that “when women are not equipped with the tools to plan for and control their pregnancies, they are less likely to experience positive birth outcomes.” But what happens when people are not fully informed about the various methods provided to them for planning for and controlling their pregnancies? In many cases, Black and Brown women were lied to about the side effects and purposes of medications they were given during studies and experiments. Some of the racist clinical studies even led to the informed consent policies we have today.

Sanger argued that “education for parenthood and of parenthood must be based upon the needs and demands of the people themselves.” While she was right, the quotidian realities of living under white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy deeply impact those potential needs and the people who have them.

The 1965 publication of The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (more famously known as the Moynihan Report), written by Lyndon B. Johnson’s Assistant Secretary of Labor, pathologized “delinquency, joblessness, school failure, crime, and fatherlessness” while linking each to Black poverty. The Moynihan Report impacted policy and laid the racist foundations for stereotypes and tropes that persist about Black people and families to this day. Sex- and motherhood-related stereotypes about Black women were given more nuance and backed by experts thanks to the Moynihan Report and women of color of different backgrounds would face the fallout, too, as policies changed.

Beyond the Troubled History

When Gloria Steinem penned a tribute to Sanger she addressed her ties to the eugenics movement, stating that “her use of eugenics language probably helped justify sterilization abuse” and that “her misjudgments should cause us to wonder what parallel errors we are making now.” Whether or not she truly believed in the eugenics movement remains a debate but the impact of her adoption of the language of eugenics certainly influenced the birth control movement with respect to policy and propaganda. Poor, Black, and Brown women were often purposely misled, conned into confusing eugenics-based methods of population control for birth control. The merging of the eugenics movement with the women’s rights and early reproductive rights movements blurred lines and planted seeds of racial injustice in public policy.

The ACLU argues that forced sterilization and coercing women into using birth control violate their constitutional right to reproductive and bodily autonomy. Further, allowing legislators and policymakers to regulate reproductive freedoms legitimizes “the role of government as an overseer of women’s childbearing capacity in general.” One could argue that coercion can range from financial incentives to refusing to disseminate accurate information about pregnancy and family planning to certain populations. Methods of coercion aren’t always obvious and the intentions behind these actions aren’t always clear. On purpose.

Pros and Cons, Critiquing a Tool for Justice

Given the history of birth control, as it relates to the eugenics movement and racist government policies,  it is important to unpack our relationship to contraception. Dorothy Roberts writes that “Black women’s perspective on birth control—recognizing its potential for both liberation and oppression—makes an important contribution toward the development of a more just vision of reproductive freedom.”

While learning about the complicated and discriminatory history of birth control, and its intended use as a means for population control, it is important to also consider the language we use today when talking about family planning, pregnancy, and sex. We can explore the libratory properties of contraception while also examining the ways that power structures that are racist impact our relationship to it.

Featured image by Samantha Qeja

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