Margaret Sanger spent her life fighting to enable women to plan how many children to have and how often. Working in the slums of New York in the early 1900s, she saw the toll frequent childbirth took on women. She began to view birth control – a term she coined – as a way to help poor families. She was vilified and even jailed for her efforts. More than a century later, Sanger and the Planned Parenthood organization she founded are still under attack. GOP candidate Herman Cain recently called the group “Planned Genocide.” The author of a new biography of Sanger tells the story of her battle for women’s reproductive rights and why she remains controversial today.


  • Jean Baker Professor of history at Goucher College and author of many books on 19th-century American history.

Program Highlights

Margaret Sanger began her campaign to legalize birth control 100 years ago. At the time, even written literature about contraception was banned as pornography. Sanger died in 1966, a year after a Supreme Court decision protected an American’s right to use contraceptives. Jean Baker’s new book on Sanger examines the woman’s life and motivations.

Sanger’s Early Life

Sanger’s mother had 18 pregnancies in 22 years, dying at age 48. Sanger herself was the sixth child of 11 in a poor Irish family in Corning, New York. Sanger grew up to marry an architect, move to Hastings-on-Hudson, and have several children, but Baker says Sanger would never have been happy to have lived a calm, suburban life there. She encouraged her husband to move the family to New York City, where she began associating with radicals and intellectuals in Greenwich Village.

A Growing Interest in Reproductive Rights

After moving to the city, Sanger became more interested in birth control methods and women’s reproductive rights. She believed that no woman was free who could not control her body. She traveled to Europe, where developments of new kinds of birth control were happening. At the time, the only widely available contraceptives in the U.S. were pessaries and diaphragms, and early researchers were focusing on developing spermicides. But Sanger started supporting new work in endocrinology that would allow women to have greater control over their reproductive cycles.

Opening the First Clinic

Sanger’s opening of the first women’s clinic in 1916 was, according to Baker, “an act of civil disobedience.” Sanger went around her New York neighborhood handing out posters asking, “Do you want to have another child?” Can you afford another child?” and imploring people to come to the Brownsville clinic for help. “And they lined up. The women came,” Baker said. Within a few days, an undercover policewoman visited the clinic, and a few days after that, police came to shut down the clinic and arrest Margaret Sanger, her sister, and a translator who had been helping to run the clinic. Sanger made the best of the setback, insisting on walking to the jail and taking the opportunity to turn the situation in to a public relations win. In jail for a month, Sanger taught the women in prison about birth control.

Sanger’s Legacy

Some people mistakenly believe that Sanger was a proponent of abortion, but Baker say this is simply not true. Baker points out that Sanger died in 1966, and abortion was not legalized in the U.S until 1971, so abortion was still often dangerous and harmful for women in her lifetime. Today, there is a common misconception that one of Planned Parenthood’s main goals is to provide abortion services to women. But Planned Parenthood has stated that its abortion services amount to about 3 percent of its total services, with 90 percent of its services classified as “preventive.”

You can read the full transcript here.

Related Video

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion by Jean H. Baker. Published November 2011 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Jean H. Baker. All rights reserved:


  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Margaret Sanger began her campaign to legalize birth control 100 years ago. At the time, even written literature about contraception was banned as pornography. Sanger died in 1966, a year after a Supreme Court decision protected an American's right to use contraceptives.

  • 11:07:27

    MS. DIANE REHMNow, a new biography titled "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion" tells the story of her fight for family planning. Author Jean Baker joins me in the studio to talk about Margaret Sanger and why she remains controversial today. We will, of course, take your calls 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Jean Baker, welcome.

  • 11:08:12

    MS. JEAN BAKERThank you, Diane.

  • 11:08:13

    REHMIt's good to have you here. I'd like to know a little about Margaret Sanger's life before she became famous. Tell us about her.

  • 11:08:25

    BAKERI think this is one of the more extraordinary parts of her biography. She grew up in Corning, New York. She was the sixth child of 11 in a poor Irish family and the family had no money. Her father was an iconoclast of sorts who got into trouble with the Catholic Church which was the ruling institution in Corning.

  • 11:08:56

    BAKERAnd Margaret Sanger had none of the kinds of attributes that one would expect in her early life for someone who could lead such a reform cause.

  • 11:09:12

    REHMShe -- her mother, as I understand it, had 18 pregnancies in 22 years, extraordinary. Why did the family get in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church?

  • 11:09:28

    BAKERWell, because her father really opposed any kind of Catholic intervention in their lives. Sanger, for example, although her mother was a loyal Catholic, was not confirmed until she was 15 and she wasn't christened until she was about five. So there was this dilemma in the family between the Catholic mother and the father who was asking free thinkers like Robert Ingersoll to come and talk to Corning.

  • 11:10:05

    BAKERSo I do believe that part of Sanger's background is this family. She wrote once in her autobiography, "my mother died at 48." She had the year wrong. Her mother actually died at 50, "and my father lived to be 80." And she needed to say no more about the fact that the frequent pregnancies of her mother, who also had tuberculosis, affected her life.

  • 11:10:36

    REHMAnd Margaret Sanger herself had tuberculosis.

  • 11:10:40


  • 11:10:41

    REHMShe married Bill Sanger, an aspiring architect and then she had her first pregnancy, I think, five months later.

  • 11:10:52

    BAKEROh a little bit later, a year or so later and then she had two more children and lived for a time a perfectly typical suburban life in Hastings-on-Hudson. But that was not for Sanger. I'm not sure I ever figured out what the key to Sanger is. The book has a subtitle, "...Passion." I know that's part of it, but Sanger was not going to stay in Hastings-on-Hudson raising her children and leading a calm life. It's Sanger that encourages her husband to move into New York and there begins this wonderful association with some of the radicals in New York and some of the intellectuals in Greenwich Village.

  • 11:11:45

    REHMWhat types of birth control were available to Sanger herself?

  • 11:11:52

    BAKERWell she used pessaries. There were all kinds of fancy, usually European names, for these pessaries. The Mensinga, the Mitspah (sp?) and we would call these diaphragms. She also could have used, if she wanted to, some kind of spermicide. And the research, the early research in trying to improve birth control, which Margaret Sanger pushed and promoted, focused almost entirely on spermicides. What was the proper acidic composition of something that women could use through a douche and this would kill sperm.

  • 11:12:39

    REHMAnd didn't she ultimately travel abroad to find out what women in Europe were using?

  • 11:12:47

    BAKERYes. It's absolutely true until the development of the pill that the Europeans were the ones that were developing these new contraceptives, forms of contraception. By the way, Sanger liked to use the words birth control because she believed that that stated what it was and all these other terms that were used, voluntary parenthood et cetera -- how about venereal prophylaxis? What would that mean to someone?

  • 11:13:26

    BAKERSo she would travel to Europe and if she heard about some new process, she would leave the United States and try to find out what it was.

  • 11:13:37

    REHMBut she really became as interested in women having more control over planning their pregnancies?

  • 11:13:48

    BAKERYes. It's Margaret Sanger who said no woman is free who does not control her body and she believed that these contraceptives that were used most popularly, the condom, were male contraceptives and so her agenda was to try to find something that was effective, legal and safe for women.

  • 11:14:15

    REHMWhat was available in Europe at the time?

  • 11:14:19

    BAKERWell, pretty much the same thing as there. These folks are working in the paradigm of spermicides and diaphragms and pessaries and it's Sanger that begins to support the new work in endocrinology. It's Sanger who has no scientific training that begins to encourage various researchers in the United States to develop a hormonal contraception. And of course, we know that in 1960, this appeared as Enovid.

  • 11:14:57

    REHMHow long did her first marriage last?

  • 11:15:01

    BAKERHer first marriage lasted about 15 to 20 years.

  • 11:15:07

    REHMFifteen to 20 years...

  • 11:15:08

    BAKERShe was trying. She was married in 1902 and she was fighting for the last six years to try to get her husband Bill Sanger to sign some sort of separation agreement. Remember they're living in New York and New York had very difficult divorce laws that prevented people from, unless they charged the partner with adultery, from ending the marriage. But finally in 1920-1921 Sanger is divorced from Bill and remains single only for a couple of years.

  • 11:15:53

    REHMAnd then marries a very wealthy man who supports the work she does.

  • 11:15:59

    BAKERWell, he better had.

  • 11:16:03

    REHMWhen you say he better had, he knew what she was doing...

  • 11:16:07


  • 11:16:07

    REHM...when they married?

  • 11:16:09


  • 11:16:09

    REHMBut was he, in his heart, a supporter of her work?

  • 11:16:15

    BAKEROh, I think so. I think his name was Jay Noah Slee and I think that he certainly supported all of her work and very generously until the Depression came along and then he lost some of his money and he became a little bit more cranky about what he was going to do for her.

  • 11:16:39

    REHMWhat kind of monies was she spending? What was she needing to carry out her work?

  • 11:16:47

    BAKERThis has always surprised me. She had no steady income. She lectured and as time went on and she became more and more prominent she could raise the prices for her lectures but none the less there was no steady income that she had. She was a very, very adroit fundraiser and so once the movement got started and in 1921 the American Birth Control League was initiated she began fundraising that way.

  • 11:17:20

    BAKERBut all her life, somehow she just never worried about money. When she came back from Europe once and started a little magazine called The Woman Rebel, no one in New York could figure out how it was that she was able to finance this. But nonetheless, she did that. And of course, when she married Slee, for a period of time after the marriage, she had plenty of money to do what she wanted to.

  • 11:17:54

    REHMI guess the element of all this that has really surprised me the most is that one could not even write or talk about any form of birth control without it being considered pornographic material.

  • 11:18:18

    BAKERUm mm, this is the Comstock laws. There had been other laws, federal laws involving censorship, but they usually involved literature and now suddenly birth control materials are defined as obscene.

  • 11:18:37

    REHMJean Baker, her new biography of "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion."

  • 11:20:04

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us Jean Baker is the author of the new biography titled "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion." Jean Baker is professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore. She's the author of numerous books on 19th century American history. Jean Baker, are you surprised at the idea that after all these years, Planned Parenthood is still somehow the focus of great controversy?

  • 11:20:46

    BAKEROf course, indeed I am, although I don't think that Margaret Sanger would be. She lived her whole life amidst controversy. And she always was concerned about going backwards. It was this, what we talked about early, going back to Corning having someone, either legally or politically, moved back and restrict women's reproductive rights. So while I am surprised, I'm not sure she would be.

  • 11:21:18

    REHMShe started writing articles in something like 1911 about sexual hygiene. What kinds of reactions did she get?

  • 11:21:31

    BAKERWell, in one case -- she wrote for the New York Call, which was a socialist newspaper. And these, in our terms, would be very, very benign articles, sort of birds and bees stuff. But the problem was that at one point she mentioned venereal disease. And this got a column in the New York Call censored and so she and the editor agreed that they would produce a front page story, What Every Child Should Know, and then under it nothing, in order to embarrass the officials.

  • 11:22:11

    BAKERBut it took a long while to work through the idea that somehow birth control was vulgar and obscene and pornographic and that children should not even have sex education.

  • 11:22:25

    REHMAnd then she opened a birth control clinic in 1916. What happened?

  • 11:22:34

    BAKERWell, this is the famous first clinic in the United States. And Sanger decided that she had to do this, although she knew it was illegal. This is an act of civil disobedience and she went around this neighborhood in Brownsville and handed out posters to -- these are largely immigrant women. They're mostly Italian. Some of them are Jewish women from southeast Europe. And the posters said, do you want to have another child? Can you afford another child? If not, come to the Brownsville clinic where trained nurses -- and of course, Sanger had had some nursing experience and training -- trained nurses will help you.

  • 11:23:26

    BAKERAnd they lined up. The women came. And five days after the clinic had opened, a very well dressed woman came and, of course, this is a police officer, this is a sting operation, which is the way Anthony Comstock worked. And a few days later, the police came and shut down the clinic and took Margaret Sanger and her sister and the translator off to jail.

  • 11:23:58

    BAKEROne of the things to remember about Sanger is her ability to create situations and make the most of them. She needed propaganda that would shift rather static public ideas about sex and reproduction. So what did she do when she was arrested by the police? She refused to get in the black maria and she walked to the police station with her -- some of her supporters behind her.

  • 11:24:31

    REHMHow long a walk was that? Do you know?

  • 11:24:34

    BAKERI don't know.

  • 11:24:36

    REHMBut then she is put on trial.

  • 11:24:39


  • 11:24:40

    REHMAnd what happens?

  • 11:24:41

    BAKERAnd she's sent to jail for a month. And this, again, is something that Sanger is very flexible and tolerant in terms of what's needed for the movement. She understands that if she, a small demure woman, goes to jail for a month that this will help the cause. So she is taken off to jail and of course we all know what she would do in jail. She tried to teach the women in the prison about birth control. She's marvelously consistent and well focused on her radical reform.

  • 11:25:24

    REHMAnd she founded the American Birth Control League which, I gather, later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

  • 11:25:37

    BAKERYes, yes. And she did not like the idea that her name, birth control, would be moved away from the title of the most important purveyor of reproductive rights. But that was Margaret Sanger. She was fierce.

  • 11:25:56

    REHMWas she pro-abortion?

  • 11:25:59

    BAKERShe was not pro-abortion. One must remember that abortion was illegal and dangerous. And women lined up in the streets on Saturday nights when they did not work to get these abortions, which sometimes led to septicemia and their death. So Sanger did not support abortion.

  • 11:26:26

    REHMYou, I'm sure, know that presidential candidate for the GOP nomination, Herman Cain, spoke at an event last March which was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. Here's what he had to say.

  • 11:26:47

    MR. HERMAN CAINWhen Margaret Sanger, check my history, started Planned Parenthood, the objective was to put these centers in primarily black communities so they could help kill black babies before they came into the world. You don't see that talked that much about. It's Planned Parenthood. No, it's Planned Genocide, and you can quote me on that.

  • 11:27:13

    REHMAnd then Herman Cain was interviewed by Bob Schieffer on CBS's 60 -- "Face The Nation" just two weeks ago. Here is the exchange.

  • 11:27:29

    BOB SCHIEFFERThere was one point back there when the question of Planned Parenthood came up and you said that it was not Planned Parenthood, it was really Planned Genocide because you said Planned Parenthood was trying to put all these centers into the black communities 'cause they wanted to kill black babies before they were born.

  • 11:27:46


  • 11:27:47

    SCHIEFFERYou still stand by that?

  • 11:27:48

    CAINI still stand by that.

  • 11:27:49

    SCHIEFFERDo you have any proof that that was the objective of Planned Parenthood?

  • 11:27:53

    CAINIf people go back and look at the history and look at Margaret Sanger's own words, that's exactly where that came from. Look up the history. So if you go back and look up the history, secondly look at where most of them were built. Seventy-five percent of those facilities were built in the black community in Margaret Sanger's own words. She didn't use the word genocide, but she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.

  • 11:28:22

    SCHIEFFERSo you would not see any advantage to having young mothers get counsel and advice that Planned Parenthood could give them, I mean, with so many black babies born out of wedlock?

  • 11:28:36

    CAINThere are a lot of centers that offer sincere counseling rather than Planned Parenthood claiming to be those centers, when in fact they would rather for the young lady to come in and say they want to get an abortion and facilitate that. Plenty of centers out there genuinely do that. What I'm saying is Planned Parenthood isn't sincere about wanting to try to counsel them not to have abortions.

  • 11:29:04

    REHMJean Baker, Herman Cain referred to Margaret Sanger's own words. And I wonder if you've come across such words that in effect say we need to prevent the growth of the black population by virtue of providing Planned Parenthood in these black neighborhoods.

  • 11:29:39

    BAKERI have not. Sanger was -- did not begin her movement in black communities. Herman Cain talks about the target on his back. It seems to me in his history, he's put it on his own back. Margaret Sanger in 1930 -- only in 1930, because black leaders came to her, did she open a clinic in Harlem. It would've been an indication of her racism, of her anti-black feelings had she not done this.

  • 11:30:20

    BAKERNow there is -- has always been a split in the African-American community. And some blacks have always felt that various means of contraception -- I'm thinking of Norplant which was used in my home city in Baltimore for a few years, that these -- this is an effort to prevent blacks from having more babies. But Sanger herself was far ahead of most Americans in her attitudes toward African-Americans.

  • 11:30:57

    REHMWhen she opened her first clinic in 1916 and went to jail, what happened between 1916 and 1930?

  • 11:31:11

    BAKERShe's busy.

  • 11:31:12

    REHMShe's busy.

  • 11:31:13

    BAKERShe's traveling in Europe trying to find some new methods of birth control. She's beginning a public opinion promotion to encourage Americans to accept contraception. She's thinking about where clinics -- future clinics could be located. And most of the Sanger clinics in the early days were in, as indeed they are now, rural communities. And I'm particularly reminded of Sanger and her relationship to North Carolina.

  • 11:31:54

    BAKERNorth Carolina had a -- for whatever reason, had a particularly progressive health officer. And Sanger went down to encourage him to put birth control information into these clinics that were run by the state. She was surprised because they were segregated and she always opposed segregation well before most Americans do. We're in the '20s and the '30s. We're not in the '60s and '70s, and Sanger has always been judged with a retro spectroscope which says in 1980, 1990 and today we don't believe in segregation. And therefore when we look back on Sanger and she did accept some segregated clinics then she's a racist.

  • 11:32:56

    BAKEROne story that really came home to me was she had a housekeeper named Daisy Faithful Mitchell. And Daisy Mitchell was traveling from Arizona where Sanger later lived and could not get served in a Kansas City restaurant.

  • 11:33:16

    REHMShe was African-American.

  • 11:33:17

    BAKERYeah, she was African-American. And when she and Sanger -- when she got to New York and Sanger heard this story, she immediately wrote and castigated the restaurant for having not served Daisy Faithful Mitchell.

  • 11:33:34

    REHMJean Baker. She's the author of the new biography titled "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're going to open the phone now, 800-433-8850. First to Walla Walla, Wash. Good morning, Robin.

  • 11:34:00

    ROBINGood morning. Good morning, Jean and Diane.

  • 11:34:03

    REHMGood morning.

  • 11:34:05

    ROBINI had to do a book report on her in my first year of junior college. And the professors were nonetheless a little bit -- they thought it was a strange topic for me. Anyway, I believe that she was a conservative humanist. She was controlling the danger of overpopulation because of the pain of human disease. I've gotten pneumonia twice in my life and believe me, little ones -- it's not cool.

  • 11:34:34

    ROBINSo at that time, a person wrote a book called "Five Points" and it described the state of New York. They didn't have enough plumbing there, they didn't have proper sanitation department. There were like ten people per house. Kids didn't have the right size shoes to wear, if any. Anyway, so I think she was a conservative humanist. She wasn't really a bad person. And the last thing I wanted to say before I get off the phone is women did win the right to vote back in 1911 because they won the human self worth because of Margaret Sanger. Thank you.

  • 11:35:19

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:35:20

    BAKERThank you. You have made a number of interesting points. One of the ones that I'd like to pick up is the issue of overpopulation, which becomes very important in the United States and other countries after World War II. It's surprising because there's such a -- many people were killed during World War II but nonetheless there were great increases in population in India and China, et cetera.

  • 11:35:53

    BAKERAnd one of the things I find interesting about Sanger is that birth control is something that she is able to modulate in its public form to answer various kinds of contemporary needs. And in the 1950s, this was clearly the idea of overpopulation, that there would be too many people. I do want to say, as I end my answer, that I'm delighted that you wrote a paper on Margaret Sanger.

  • 11:36:33

    REHMNow I have a question for you that I'm sure could take hours to respond to. Was she involved in the eugenics movement and if so, how?

  • 11:36:50

    BAKERYes, certainly she was involved. She wanted the imprimatur of scientists who were eugenicists. These are mostly sociology -- excuse me, zoologists, biologists, population experts. And so she did put some of them on the board of her American Birth Control League. And she certainly knew them well. When you say this would take an hour I just want to take two minutes to say that we need to have a national conversation about eugenicism. We have this notion that everything -- because of the Holocaust, and rightly so, everything about eugencisim is bad. We forget how pervasive it was.

  • 11:37:45

    REHMJean Baker on Margaret Sanger.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMIf you just joined us, historian Jean Baker, she's professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore, she's the author of numerous books on 19th-century American history, her latest, "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion". We have an email from Brian, who's in Marianna, Fla., who says, "She's no heroine. Despite some of your guest's comments, Margaret Sanger was not known for her ebullient kindness and very much believed in limiting the population of lesser races. That is well documented and was not uncommon at the time." We're back to eugenics, Jean.

  • 11:41:02

    BAKERI'd like to respond to the email. First, contextually, and to suggest to whoever sent the email that the United States was awash with eugenicism in the 1920s and the 1930s. And indeed, although we think that the holocaust ended, the American flirtation with eugenicism, it still exists today. In 1927, there was a famous court case that involved -- and what we're talking about when we talk about eugenicism is involuntary sterilization. I think that's the issue.

  • 11:41:51

    BAKERIn Buck v. Bell, a young woman in Virginia was involuntarily sterilized. The case got to the Supreme Court. And in 1927, by a vote of eight to one, the court agreed that involuntary sterilization was legal. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, often saluted as one of the great civil libertarians of our nation, wrote, three generations of feeble-minded is enough. And then the legal proviso that he cited was immunization, that Americans had been immunized against their will. And I don't think any of us would agree with that particular comparison.

  • 11:42:51

    BAKERBeyond the contextual, I think it's very important to separate Margaret Sanger from the American Eugenics Society. She never believed in any sterilization that would go beyond individuals to groups. She did believe that involuntary sterilization could be used with individuals and against individuals, but she never ever brought forth the idea that classes and races would be subjected to various kinds of eugenicism.

  • 11:43:39

    BAKERWhat I’m asking for here is a closer look at what she said and what she did. And not putting her across this broad chasm that we have drawn into the idea that all eugenicists believed in the same thing.

  • 11:43:59

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Silver Spring, MD. Good morning, Peggy.

  • 11:44:05

    PEGGYHi, Diane.

  • 11:44:06

    REHMHi, there.

  • 11:44:07

    PEGGYI just wanted to differ with Miss Baker. I read a book called "Breeding the Thoroughbred," by Margaret Sanger. She wrote that in 1920.

  • 11:44:20

    BAKER"Breeding the Thoroughbred."

  • 11:44:21

    PEGGYAnd in that, she talks about the sterilization of blacks, other Europeans, Christian fundamentalists, mental defectives. And it seems like her agenda was to build a master race. In fact, many of the people who associated with Miss Sanger were Nazi sympathizers and KKK members. It's a very elite group that she associated with.

  • 11:44:45


  • 11:44:46

    PEGGYAnd I guess they put themselves above the regular folks.

  • 11:44:52

    BAKERI'm sorry. I just don't agree with your facts. And I certainly don't believe that Margaret Sanger needs a pass on her eugenical thinking. The idea -- she did write something about thoroughbreds. The idea -- this is the basic progressive notion of eugenics. That through biology you can create better -- not only better horses, but you can create better people. How would you do this? Well, of course, Margaret Sanger's answer is you will develop birth control for women. In fact, I would argue that Margaret Sanger's eugenicism is feminist because she believes if women have the opportunity to control their fertility, to space their children, then we will have better Americans, better Europeans, better Asians.

  • 11:46:04

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Palm City, Fla. Good morning, Norman.

  • 11:46:11


  • 11:46:12

    REHMYes, sir. Go right ahead.

  • 11:46:14

    NORMANI simply want to point out that when Benjamin Franklin invented the lightening rod, he was highly criticized for religious reasons. Excuse me a moment. His critics said that he was interfering with God's plan. And that was the same argument used against Margaret Sanger, that she was -- by advocating birth control, she was interfering with God's plan.

  • 11:46:49

    BAKERThat's an interesting point. And I'm glad that you brought it up. There are a number of obstacles that Sanger faces when she begins this campaign for birth control. And surely the major adversary all along is the Roman-Catholic Church, which to this day does not support artificial contraception. And the idea that the Catholic Church had was that God has delivered to us -- and this is a quote from an encyclical of Paul, generative organs and we must use those organs for the purpose of reproduction and having children. Any interference with that process is one that is a sin.

  • 11:47:45

    BAKERAnd therefore, Sanger struggled all her life against the Catholic Church. She was to some degree involved in efforts to try to get the church to change its mind. They were never successful, but she did find her historic enemy in the Roman-Catholic Church and its belief...

  • 11:48:11


  • 11:48:12 natural sex.

  • 11:48:15

    REHMAll right. To Brooklyn, N.Y. Ahman (sp?) , you're on the air. Are you there, Ahman? Okay.

  • 11:48:20

    AHMANHello? Yes.

  • 11:48:26

    REHMYes. Go right ahead, sir.

  • 11:48:29

    AHMANOkay. Yes. I have two brief questions. One of them is where is the accusation against Sanger coming from in regards to her agenda against African-Americans' forced sterilization? Is it misconception, misunderstanding of her reading or is it intentional propaganda by those who oppose abortion? And also, when did Planned Parenthood start providing abortions?

  • 11:48:52

    BAKERThe first part of your question deals with where is it coming from. Since the 1970s this whole issue has become politicized. Some observers say that this was one of the horses that the Republican Party wanted to ride. And that, to some extent, answers the question of where is it coming from. There is an effort in the United States now, not just against abortion, but against contraception. And so in their effort, in the -- these are Catholic groups, they are Republican groups, they are Evangelical groups. In their effort to close down the Planned Parenthood, which is the most important provider of these services, they use Margaret Sanger. They label her a eugenicist and a racist.

  • 11:49:58

    BAKERAnd my position on this is that we need to be much more nuanced and we need to be able to see what her mistakes were. And surely there were some of them, in terms of we would not support some of the things that she did, but none the less, we have to historicize her and not use her as a weapon.

  • 11:50:22

    REHMWhen did Planned Parenthood begin providing abortions? Was it during her lifetime?

  • 11:50:31

    BAKERYes, in some cases. But when she began she did not -- it was entirely birth control and she would send the patients that wanted abortions, she would send them to somewhere else. Again, remember during her lifetime abortion was illegal. It did not...

  • 11:50:53

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:50:53

    BAKER...become legal until 1971. And Margaret Sanger died in 1966. So one would hardly expect that she would be a rabid supporter of a procedure that was very dangerous for American women.

  • 11:51:10

    REHMI think it would be useful to understand what percentage of Planned Parenthood's operations involved abortion.

  • 11:51:25

    BAKERWell, most of -- in any clinic -- and I'm most familiar with the one in Baltimore. Most of what is going on in Planned Parenthood clinics involves sex education. It involves certain kinds of tests. I think many women understand that a birth control Planned Parenthood clinic is their first medical provider so that there are all kinds of tests, etcetera that are going on. There's discussion, there's fitting with contraception, whether the pill or IUD. And there are some abortions. But, again, this has been used by political groups to try to end all abortions in the United States.

  • 11:52:18

    REHMJean Baker, her new biography, "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And joining us now is Nancy Sanger Pallesen, the granddaughter of Margaret Sanger. Good morning to you, Nancy. Thanks for calling.

  • 11:52:42

    MS. NANCY SANGER PALLESENWell, good morning, Diane.

  • 11:52:44

    REHMIt's good to have you with us.

  • 11:52:46

    PALLESENI beg your pardon?

  • 11:52:46

    REHMIt's good to have you with us. Tell me...

  • 11:52:50

    PALLESENOh, thank you. You know...

  • 11:52:50

    REHMTell me your own -- go ahead.

  • 11:52:53

    PALLESENNo. Please repeat your question. I’m sorry.

  • 11:52:56

    REHMI was just going to ask what your own memories are of Margaret Sanger.

  • 11:53:03

    PALLESENWell, my memories are very vivid. I grew up living next door to her for 20 years. And I have wonderful, wonderful memories of a woman who had, in my opinion, two sides. Number one she was a grandmother. I mean, a real grandmother, a loving grandmother to us. And she was also a very committed and dedicated person for -- from -- about Planned Parenthood, about having women having the right to choose whether or not they wanted to have children. She was a total proponent of every child should be a wanted child. She was in favor of women having choice. She wanted to save women's lives because so many women died, either through childbirth or through illegal abortions.

  • 11:53:57

    PALLESENShe was never a proponent of abortion. And some of the comments that I hear other people making, I think are truly incorrect. I think there's misinformation out there that is being spread that should not be. This woman really made an enormous contribution to our society and to the world while she was alive and since she's been alive. And she's been dead now for a long, long time. And the fact...

  • 11:54:30


  • 11:54:30

    PALLESEN...that what she has done is still such an inflammatory topic, it's truly extraordinary to me.

  • 11:54:38

    REHMJean Baker...

  • 11:54:38

    PALLESENSo she was really about choice and about saving women's lives and making every child a wanted child. There was nothing, you know, bad about what she did in her life.

  • 11:54:54

    REHMJean Baker, I know you want to comment.

  • 11:54:55

    REHMYes. I remember, Nancy, interviewing you and getting a sense of your grandmother. Let me just tell one wonderful story about Margaret Sanger, who had this other side of her. She was very funny. And she once stood on her head with Elizabeth Arden and when Nancy and, I think, her sister arrived -- and Sanger's living in Tucson, Ariz. at this point. Here were these two women in their 70s, standing on their head. And when the children asked, why are you doing that, she said, I want to get some color in my cheeks.

  • 11:55:39

    REHMOh, I love it. I love it. Well, I think that what you have given us, Jean Baker, is a broader sense of who Margaret Sanger was, what her contributions were. Somehow I think that there are still many people out there who believe that Margaret Sanger was not only peripherally involved in this eugenics movement, but somehow fundamentally involved and that she wanted to limit the number of black children born in this country and perhaps all over the world.

  • 11:56:29

    BAKERWe will keep working to change their minds.

  • 11:56:33

    REHMNancy Sanger Pallesen and Jean Baker, author of "Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion," thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:56:47

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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