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One can imagine Sanger's response to the current anti-choice lobby and congressional leadership that opposes abortion, sex education in schools, and federally funded contraceptive programs that would make abortion less necessary; that supports ownership of young women's bodies through parental-consent laws; that limits poor women's choices by denying Medicaid funding; and that holds hostage the entire U.S. billion-dollar debt to the United Nations in the hope of attaching an antiabortion rider. As in her day, the question seems to be less about what gets decided than who has the power to make the decision.
One can also imagine her response to pro-life rhetoric being used to justify an average of one clinic bombing or arson per month--sometimes the same clinics Sanger helped found--and the murder of six clinic staff members, the attempted murder of 15 others, and assault and battery against 104 more. In each case, the justification is that potential fetal life is more important than a living woman's health or freedom.
What are mistakes in our era that parallel those of Sanger's? There is still an effort to distort her goal of giving women control over their bodies by attributing such quotes to Sanger as "More children from the fit, less from the unfit--that is the chief issue of birth control." Sanger didn't say those words; in fact, she condemned them as a eugenicist argument for "cradle competition." To her, poor mental development was largely the result of poverty, overpopulation and the lack of attention to children. She correctly foresaw racism as the nation's major challenge, conducted surveys that countered stereotypes regarding the black community and birth control, and established clinics in the rural South with the help of such African-American leaders as W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Nonetheless, expediency caused Sanger to distance herself from her radical past; for instance, she used soft phrases such as "family planning" instead of her original, more pointed argument that the poor were being manipulated into producing an endless supply of cheap labor. She also adopted the mainstream eugenics language of the day, partly as a tactic, since many eugenicists opposed birth control on the grounds that the educated would use it more. Though her own work was directed toward voluntary birth control and public health programs, her use of eugenics language probably helped justify sterilization abuse. Her misjudgments should cause us to wonder what parallel errors we are making now and to question any tactics that fail to embody the ends we hope to achieve.
Sanger led by example. Her brave and joyous life included fulfilling work, three children, two husbands, many lovers and an international network of friends and colleagues. She was charismatic and sometimes quixotic, but she never abandoned her focus on women's freedom and its larger implications for social justice (an inspiration that continues through Ellen Chesler's excellent biography, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America). Indeed, she lived as if she and everyone else had the right to control her or his own life. By word and deed, she pioneered the most radical, humane and transforming political movement of the century.
Gloria Steinem is a co-founder of Ms. magazine and author of Revolution from Within