Thursday, August 24, 2017

For the record: The last of Sanger

Still from Margaret Sanger's lost 1917 film Birth Control. dramatizing her arrest and jailing for violation of the Comstock Act by providing contraception to patients at her Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn, 1916. Via Margaret Sanger Papers.

A kind of last word on the subject of Margaret Sanger and her support for sterilization of the "feeble-minded" popped into my head, right out of real life.

That cliché demurrer at the end won me a like from my interlocutor, but I didn't really feel good about it.

We say girls—young women beneath the age of statutory consent—can't "make a choice" to have sex. This is why we prosecute their seducers for rape. Similarly lots of states have statutory rape laws dealing with sexual abuse of women with intellectual disabilities. The legal standard focuses on when such women have the "capacity of consent". We can have a discussion of whether they can consent to sex but we can't discuss whether they can consent to having a child?

They didn't have hormonal birth control in Margaret Sanger's time, or IUDs, just condoms and cervical caps, and using those was against federal law after the 1873 Comstock Act, which was being rigorously enforced by the beginning of the 20th century. Sanger's great cause was to change that, and give women of all classes the ability to make their own choice as to whether to have a child or not, positive and negative.

The "feeble-minded, the insane and syphilitic" were a pretty peripheral part of her quest, and I don't know whether she thought it was a good thing for them to have sex, as I do, but she knew that they would, and she didn't contemplate trying to stop them. At the same time she didn't believe they should have to "make that choice", so she thought it was a good idea to give them tubal ligations or vasectomies and didn't think it was necessary to ask their consent (keep in mind that the concept of informed medical consent didn't exist, either—it only dates back to 1957). Even if she did use the language of "racial betterment", she absolutely rejected the concept of racial or religious identity as grounds for sterilization, unlike Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill and Calvin Coolidge and the rest of the eugenics movement. I really can't see any more how her thinking has anything to do with Nazis and their plans for Jewish and Roma genocide. It has to do more with my nephew.

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