A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 3, Family Planning and Race

Faye Wattleton (left) with Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson, 1992

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. This third installment covers questions of racism, especially as aimed at Planned Parenthood and its founder, Margaret Sanger.

Faye Wattleton is clear that women’s autonomy is at the core of the reproductive rights debate. Her philosophy regarding the struggle for reproductive rights, as she said during our interview, “gradually evolved to the conclusion that this is still really about the fundamental right and values that women are held to. That our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.” The question is whether the government will seize the power to make decisions about women’s bodies.


“Racism has a very deep vein in this country and our culture.”


Ms. Wattleton, as the first African American president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was often asked how she could work for an organization founded by Margaret Sanger, a woman who allegedly saw birth control as a tool to eradicate the Negro race, to use the language of Sanger’s time. For example, when Ms. Wattleton debated Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, on the Phil Donahue Show in 1991, he accused her of being a traitor to her race by working for Planned Parenthood: “Margaret Sanger … wanted to eliminate the black community,” Terry said to Ms. Wattleton. “You have been bought.”

Ms. Wattleton responded, “I do not need you to tell me what my choices are about my life and my body because I am a black person. I can make that choice for myself, just as every black woman can make that choice for herself.” Reflecting further on Margaret Sanger during our conversation, Ms. Wattleton added, “I could never understand why Margaret Sanger was hauled out. Maybe she was racist. George Washington had slaves. What am I supposed to do? Give up my American citizenship for that?”

Allegations of Margaret Sanger’s racism arose from her connection to the eugenics movement, and these accusations have recently been raised once more against supporters of reproductive rights. Abortion opponents have chosen predominantly black neighborhoods as sites for their billboards, which accuse Planned Parenthood of perpetuating genocide against African Americans.

The eugenics movement of the early 20th century, whose followers included people like H.G. Wells, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Havelock Ellis, was seen as a scientific way to improve the population’s health and well-being by preventing the reproduction of the “unfit” and encouraging that of the “fit.” Eugenics was embraced by progressive intellectuals as a way to improve the lot of mankind, and Sanger felt it could help legitimize birth control. Her grandson points out that “eugenics at that time was not only ‘scientific’ but also much more respectable than birth control, which under my grandmother’s leadership was seen as the cause of radical, feminist lawbreakers.”

Back then, government programs in as many as 30 states forced sterilization on inmates in institutions for the “insane” and the “feebleminded,” to use the language of the time, and also on prisoners. The problem was, of course, that the definition of “fit” and “unfit” could be abused and decided on factors like race, nationality, and poverty. Sanger was appalled by eugenics as practiced in Germany in the 1930s, and by the anti-Semitism and sympathy for Germany in this country by individuals like Father Charles Coughlin and groups like America First, whose members included Charles Lindbergh. Sanger believed that women of normal intelligence were the best judges of when to bear children, and that birth control should be voluntary. In 1919, she wrote in the Birth Control Review that a woman’s first duty is not to the state, as eugenicists believed, but that “her duty to herself is her first duty to the state … We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world.”

When I awkwardly brought up the subject of racism, forced sterilization, and Margaret Sanger, Ms. Wattleton said, rather impatiently, “That was also a charge that I frequently answered when I was president of Planned Parenthood. I have not understood why it’s used because I don’t know [what] the work of a woman in the early part of the 20th century, whose mother had multiple pregnancies and [who] saw women dying from their unsafe attempts to terminate pregnancy, has to do with me at the end of the 20th century in terms of my personal decisions, any more than slavery has anything to do with me going back to Africa because my forebears were brought over here on slave ships.”

Like Faye Wattleton, Margaret Sanger became an activist in response to her experiences as a nurse. Sanger worked on the Lower East Side in New York City, long a neighborhood of recent immigrants. Just as she saw with her mother, whose health had been wrecked in part by 18 pregnancies and 11 live births, Sanger witnessed firsthand how poverty and uncontrolled childbearing could undermine a woman’s life and health.

Sanger worked with women who had tried to end their pregnancies, often the only kind of birth control available to them. She spoke particularly about Sadie Sachs, a woman she nursed after a botched attempt to self-abort. When Sadie recovered, she asked the doctor how to keep from getting pregnant, having been told that another pregnancy could kill her. The doctor told her, with blind insensitivity typical of the era, to send her husband to sleep on the roof. The next time Sanger was called to treat Sadie, she again had tried to self-abort, but this time she didn’t survive. Even more shocking to Sanger than Sadie’s death was the doctor’s failure to understand anything about Sadie’s life and his refusal to help her.

Sanger decided that to assist the Sadies of the world, she had to educate women about preventing pregnancies. At the time, however, the Comstock Act classified as “obscene” anything that gave women information about their reproduction in general or contraception in particular. Both Sanger and her husband were arrested more than once for distributing such information.

Modern complaints about Sanger’s alleged racism center on the clinic she opened in Harlem in 1930. While some members of the community opposed it, the clinic had the support of the Amsterdam Times, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, W.E.B. DuBois, the Urban League, and others. Contemporary critics claim that Sanger’s outreach to poor and marginalized communities was racially motivated, rather than a way to increase birth-control access for everyone.

With these issues in mind, I brought up the topic of the racism that ran rampant during the 1930s. Ms. Wattleton answered, “Well, listen, in the ’30s my uncle was shot and disfigured for the rest of his life. It isn’t as though I know nothing about the consequences of racism when taken to its most extreme form. He could very well have been killed. But the point is that it’s irrelevant to the conversation about what women do with their personal lives. Whatever the motivations of those who believe that giving women access to information and birth control is somehow an evil deed that carries on to women of modern life seems … Let’s be gentle and say that’s a fairly significant stretch.”

She continued, “Racism has a very deep vein in this country and our culture, and we work toward a more perfect society. Isn’t that what we all aim to be?”

The issue of racism is important, but separate, at least for this interview. Ms. Wattleton is well aware of how racial and women’s issues intersect. In a 1989 article in Time Magazine, she discusses how black women in this country are more likely to live in poverty; less likely to have access to good health care, including contraception; and are less represented in the women’s movement. Addressing Reagan and George H.W. Bush policies like the gag rule, which forbade doctors from mentioning abortion in federally funded programs, she pointed out that “[i]t will be African-American women who will die first. We suffer disproportionately from poverty. We suffer disproportionately from despair.”

Wattleton’s admiration for Sanger’s activism is clear. She says, “People live different lives, and we have different choices, and the years in which Margaret Sanger’s work was most powerful and made the most significant contribution in the early part of the century — she went to jail for the purpose of women having just the power of information and knowledge, just knowledge. Women didn’t have the right to vote once upon a time. OK? So do we go back to that era or do we move forward, as I said, toward a more perfect union, in which people have the power, are trusted to make the right decisions for their personal lives, and have the power to exercise those choices?”

We all are part of our own time and place, and what matters is that we work toward improving life for future generations.

I wish these problems were in the past. Last summer in China, a woman was forced to abort a seven-month fetus because she failed to pay a fine for ignoring the one-child policy. Fortunately, the woman’s family posted photos online, and the government had to take notice. And we are just learning that Israel has been coercing Ethiopian women to take Depo-Provera, a strong, long-acting contraceptive. Neither racism nor coercive reproductive policies have ended.

Who is in charge of women’s bodies? That question was Margaret Sanger’s central focus a century ago, and was at the heart of Faye Wattleton’s work at Planned Parenthood as well. Sadly, the struggle for bodily autonomy is still at the heart of the larger battle for reproductive rights.


Click here to see all four installments of our wonderful interview with Faye Wattleton, which we ran on Mondays in February 2013 in observance of Black History Month.

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