July 27, 2011

Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility

Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female FertilityMargaret Sanger, the American birth-control and population-control advocate who founded Planned Parenthood, stands like a giant among her contemporaries. With her dominating yet winning personality, she helped generate shifts of opinion on issues that were not even publicly discussed prior to her activism, while her leadership was arguably the single most important factor in achieving social and legislative victories that set the parameters for today’s political discussion of family-planning funding, population-control aid, and even sex education.


July 19, 2011

Sex research in America

From here to eternity

When the United States thought sex was as dangerous as communism

Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America. By Christopher Turner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 544 pages; $35. To be published in Britain in August as “Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex” by Fourth Estate; £25.

“TREAT yourself”, the advertisements say. “You’re worth it”. The image may be a woman bending over or a man with a seductive grin. As for the product, it hardly matters whether it is soap or a car: sex is being used to sell, and latent desires will move consumers to buy—or at least feel titillated by the prospect.

What a darkly ironic epilogue for the sexual revolution, observes Christopher Turner in “Adventures in the Orgasmatron”. Progressive attitudes were meant to free society from the dangers of conformity. Yet some of the most radical ideas about our primal urges have been harnessed by those who want everyone to drink the same brand of beer.

Wilhelm Reich, a charismatic and gifted psychoanalyst who trained with Sigmund Freud, coined the phrase “sexual revolution” in the 1930s. Reich had high hopes for sex. He spent his life insisting that a bone-rattling orgasm was the best way to ensure personal health and a more humane society. Human desires are natural, he argued; it is only when society represses these instincts that problems arise.

As the hero of this erudite and engaging work of social history, Reich is a fascinating subject. He was arrogant and influential, tyrannical and abusive. He fell out with Freud and alienated his peers by insisting not only that orgasms were a panacea, but also that psychoanalysis should be a tool for social change. In his mid-30s when the Nazis came to power, he saw fascism as an inevitable product of repressive social structures, such as the patriarchal family. If the instincts of children weren’t repressed, he argued, then adults wouldn’t crave being told what to do. Reich wanted to apply the revelations of psychoanalysis to reforming sex laws (by, for example, lifting bans on abortion and prostitution) and updating social mores about marriage and children. Free sex, he believed, was the best check on totalitarianism.

Freud found this naive, maintaining that psychoanalysis was not about changing the world, but about helping people to adapt to it. Repression wasn’t something to throw off, but a part of the human condition. “To Freud, misery came from within; to Reich, it was imposed from without.”

Time, however, made Reich’s grasp on reality more tenuous, particularly after he fled to America in 1939. Like a mad scientist, he grew convinced that sexual electricity was quantifiable. His big invention was something called an “orgone energy accumulator”, a box about the size of a telephone booth which collected good atmospheric energy. Time inside the box would not only improve one’s “orgastic potency”, Reich claimed, but also treat cancer, among other maladies (including his own psoriasis). Scientists refused to confirm Reich’s orgone theories, but a generation of young progressives heralded these boxes as sources of sexual liberation, something Woody Allen parodied with his “Orgasmatron” in his 1973 film, “Sleeper”. Norman Mailer had one (though he later described it as “kind of crap”). William Burroughs claimed to have had a spontaneous orgasm in the wooden shack he built.

These pleasure-seeking bohemians gave Reich pause. He rued that they were hijacking his Utopian concepts to unleash “a free-for-all fucking epidemic”. Post-war America was an all too fertile ground for his radical ideas, it seems, as leftist intellectuals flailed about for a new language of opposition to replace Marxist dogma. Reich’s theories about sex made promiscuity seem rebellious and self-affirming.

In 1947 Reich was accused in the press of starting a “new cult of sex and anarchy”. A year later Alfred Kinsey published his explosive report about sexuality, which found that American Puritanical mores were out of sync with reality. The McCarthy trials—which sought links between sexual liberation and communism—added to the hysteria. The Food and Drug Administration began a crackdown on Reich’s work, finding it menacing. The government ultimately demanded that all of Reich’s orgone boxes be incinerated along with his books, and then sent him to prison, where he died of a heart attack in 1957.

Why was Reich considered so dangerous? Though possibly a paranoid schizophrenic, who spent the last years of his life convinced that the world was under attack by UFOs, he offered an intellectual rationale for the sexual revolution. But he also came to regret opening this Pandora’s box. Reich predicted that America’s liberated excesses would be countered by repression, just like in Stalin’s Russia.

Yet Mr Turner suggests a different legacy, one that haunted Herbert Marcuse. The German sociologist, disillusioned by the sexually omnivorous 1960s, came to believe that liberated sexual desires had been co-opted to serve capitalism; advertisers had figured out how to exploit libidinal urges to inspire “false needs”. But this overlooks the benefits. The sexual revolution may not have yielded a neurosis-free Utopia soundscaped with the glorious yelps of orgasms. But a more open society and greater sexual tolerance (at least in the West) means fewer people are looking for pleasure in a funny wooden box.
from The Economist

July 16, 2011

Her aims

In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL). (Eventually, in 1942, this is the organization that became known as Planned Parenthood.)

In her book, “The Pivot of Civilization,” Margaret Sanger herself listed the goals of the ABCL:

(1) “Research: To collect the findings of scientists, concerning the relation of reckless breeding to the evils of delinquency, defect and dependence;

(2) “Investigation: To derive from these scientifically ascertained facts and figures, conclusions which may aid all public health and social agencies in the study of problems of maternal and infant mortality, child-labor, mental and physical defects and delinquence in relation to the practice of reckless parentage.

(3) “Hygienic and Physiological: Instruction by the Medical profession to mothers and potential mothers in harmless and reliable methods of Birth Control in answer to their requests for such knowledge.

(4) “Sterilization of the insane and mentally retarded and the encouragement of this operation upon those afflicted with inherited or transmissible diseases, with the understanding that sterilization does not deprive the individual of his or her sex expression, but merely renders him incapable of producing children.

(5) “Education: The program of education includes: The enlightenment of the public at large, mainly through the education of leaders of thought and opinion–teachers, ministers, editors and writers to the moral and scientific soundness of the principles of Birth Control and the imperative necessity of its adoption as the basis of national and racial progress.

(6) “Political and Legislative: To enlist the support and cooperation of legal advisers, statesmen and legislators in effecting the removal of state and federal statutes which encourage dysgenic breeding, increase the sum total of disease, misery and poverty and prevent the establishment of a policy of national health and strength.

(7) “Organization: To send into the various States of the Union field workers to enlist the support and arouse the interest of the masses, to the importance of Birth Control so that laws may be changed and the establishment of clinics made possible in every State.

(8) “International: This department aims to cooperate with similar organizations in other countries to study Birth Control in its relations to the world population problem, food supplies, national and racial conflicts, and to urge all international bodies organized to promote world peace, the consideration of these aspects of international amity.”

from her read-between-the-lines opponent

+ how a woman respected by so many in my mother's generation could be reviled by so many today.

July 10, 2011

the most valuable contribution to the advancement of human welfare

Pictorial Review 1923-01in the year 1923
Sanger was the second

read more with lots of interesting linx

written by Cathy Moran Hajo at Margaret Sanger Papers Project Research Annex

July 5, 2011

Sanger is pro life

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger, adored and reviled as the mother of birth control, published her autobiography in 1938 when she was 59 years old. Republished in 1971 by Dover, the book is still in print. I found it while browsing the biography section of the public library, and I thought I’d like to know more about this controversial pioneer. It turned out to be the most fascinating book I’ve read so far this year.

I know that some social conservatives despise Mrs. Sanger. One of her organizations evolved into Planned Parenthood, which is hated primarily because it gives women access to abortions and secondarily because it gives unmarried women access to contraception. In reaction, some have portrayed Sanger as a eugenicist of near Nazi ferocity, eager to improve the race through selective breeding, sterilization and murder of the unfit. They accuse her of aiming to exterminate people of color. They attribute her widespread support among African American leaders to a diabolical campaign of duplicity.

It’s hard to imagine anyone quite so powerful as the monster they depict, particularly if the supposed villain is a diminutive woman in an era when women did not have the vote and were barred from most influential occupations. Indeed, much of the book is a record of the obstacles Sanger faced as she struggled to help disadvantaged women learn how to space their children and produce fewer of them. She had frequent run-ins with Catholic prelates, of course. Time and again the police raided her headquarters, destroyed her property, terrorized her clients, and hauled her off to jail. Courts usually ruled against her. Congress repeatedly refused to consider bills favoring the distribution of information about contraception.

Yet nothing could stop the hundreds of thousands of women who wrote to her begging for help, and nothing could stop Sanger from attempting to provide it.

On “one stifling mid-July day of 1912,” Sanger, a public health nurse who worked in New York’s slums, had had an epiphany. A truck driver, Jake Sachs, had called a doctor to help his 28-year-old wife, who was dying of septicemia following a self-induced abortion. The young couple already had three children, and the wife was convinced they could afford no more. The doctor sent for Sanger, and for two weeks the two of them worked to save Mrs. Sachs. At the end she pulled through, but the doctor warned that another pregnancy would kill her.
“I know, doctor,” she replied timidly, “but,” and she hesitated as though it took all her courage to say it, “what can I do to prevent it?”
   The doctor was a kindly man, and he had worked hard to save her, but such incidents had become so familiar to him that he had long since lost whatever delicacy he might once have had. He laughed good-naturedly. “You want to have your cake and eat it too, do you? Well, it can’t be done.”
   Then picking up his hat and bag to depart he said, “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.” [91]
Three months later, Jake Sachs again called Mrs. Sanger, who again rushed to their apartment. Mrs. Sachs died within ten minutes of her arrival. That night, Sanger paced for hours through city streets.
When I finally arrived home and let myself quietly in, all the household was sleeping. I looked out my window and down upon the dimly lighted city. Its pains and griefs crowded in upon me, a moving picture rolled before my eyes with photographic clearness: women writhing in travail to bring forth little babies; the babies themselves naked and hungry, wrapped in newspapers to keep them from the cold; six-year-old children with pinched, pale, wrinkled faces, old in concentrated wretchedness, pushed into gray and fetid cellars, crouching on stone floors, their small scrawny hands scuttling through rags, making lamp shades, artificial flowers; white coffins, black coffins, coffins, coffins interminably passing in never-ending succession. The scenes piled one upon another on another. I could bear it no longer.
   … I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliatives and superficial cures; I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the sky. [92]
In 1912, contraception was illegal. Doctors could not dispense contraceptive devices to women (though apparently they were allowed to give men condoms to prevent STDs). The Comstock law prohibited even speaking or writing about contraception. Somehow the rich knew how to get around those laws; their families tended to be of modest size. The poor, however, had no idea how to space their children or limit their number. As a result, many desperately poor women gave birth 12, 15, even 18 times, if they lived so long. The majority of immigrant and working-class children died before reaching adulthood, and the survivors were often malnourished, sickly, uneducated, and often brain damaged as well.

Today Americans rightly protest the cruel treatment of dogs in puppy mills. A mere hundred years ago, many urban Americans lived in conditions that were just as bad. And almost nobody dared to tell women that they didn’t have to have a baby every year, that they could limit their children to a number they could support. Nobody dared to provide them with devices that would enable them to have fewer births, but also fewer deaths and more surviving children. Almost nobody, that is, but Margaret Sanger and the people who worked with her.

Her story is more than a history of birth control in America. Much of it reads like a vivid travel memoir: Sanger visited many countries and recorded her observations and impressions. It is also a fascinating social history of the now almost-forgotten lifestyles and mores of the early 20th century. Besides, the book is fun to read: Sanger is a clever writer. She describes one newly married couple, for example, as having “little but love, faith, and hope to save them from charity.” Here is her one-sentence characterization of a lawyer she consulted: “The seeds of social service had been planted in him; his legal training only temporarily slowed down their growth.”

So what about Sanger’s supposed secret schemes of race purification? I found no evidence of them in this book. Some of her supporters were indeed eugenicists – people who thought that the mentally and morally unfit should be sterilized. That view was quite common until at least mid-20th century (my own evangelical parents said similar things) and Sanger probably shared it, but it was not her primary concern. The way she wanted to purify the race was to allow people to choose the number of children they bore, so that they could adequately feed, clothe, and educate their families. Then, she believed, far fewer children would be sickly, far fewer mothers would die in childbirth, and far more children would live to adulthood. In this way, she thought, the human race would become stronger.

Interestingly, some of Sanger’s views are at odds with the views of many Planned Parenthood advocates today. In October of 1916, she opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Women were admitted in groups to learn how to plan their families.
To each group, [she writes,] we explained simply what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way – no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way – it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun. [217]
Her pro-life views conflicted with those of a prominent German gynecologist she interviewed in 1920. When she opined that abortion was a ridiculous substitute for contraception,
the doctor rose, his chest sticking out; he buttoned his coat, bowed formally, and inquired, “Where did you say you came from?”
   “New York City.”
   “Are you sure you are not from France or Belgium?”
   “Certainly not.”
   “Nobody who has the welfare of Germany at heart could talk to me as you have this morning. Only enemies could come here to give such information [about contraception] to our women.”
   I wished he would sit down; he made me nervous. But I went on. “Why is it such an act of enmity to advocate contraceptives rather than abortions? Abortions, as you know yourself, may be quite dangerous, whereas reliable contraceptives are harmless. Why do you oppose them?”
   To my horror he replied, “We will never give over the control of our numbers to the women themselves. What, let them control the future of the human race? With abortions it is in our hands; we make the decisions, and they must come to us.”
   That was not the tone of this doctor alone but also that of most of his confrères. [286]
Margaret Sanger was, I believe, pro-life. She was also pro-choice. People on both sides of today’s culture war have a lot to thank her for.

It’s easy for us older folks to complain that the world is going to hell. Whenever I get in a curmudgeonly mood, the surest cure is to watch an old movie or read an old book and notice how people lived and how women were regarded back then. Sanger’s autobiography made me profoundly grateful to live in an era when women are, comparatively speaking, respected; when most children – even of the poor – survive to adulthood; and when the Constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech is taken for granted.