Guest Columnist Commonweal disputes Bishop DiMarzio about Margaret Sanger

In  a Jan. 23, 2013 column entitled “Deeper Into the Culture of Death,” Bishop DiMarzio of Brooklyn drew attention to the influence of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, on the “so-called pro-choice movement.”

Bishop DiMarzio quoted Sanger who said she wanted to “assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” To which, the bishop responded, “Of course, a young Barack Obama was precisely the sort of unfit child that Sanger and her allies would want to eliminate.”

Bishop DiMarzio is not the first pro-life leader who has underscored the tragic irony of an African-American president advocating abortion when abortion has been responsible for a drastic reduction of live births in his own ethnic community. Alveda King, niece of the late Martin Luther King, has made this point repeatedly. King recommends Janet Morana's book, Recall Abortion, to rebut the "agenda of reproductive genocide" promulgated by Margaret Sanger.

As Bishop DiMarzio put it, “President Obama has chosen to use the bully pulpit not to call upon us all to be nobler and to embrace each child, regardless of origins and circumstances; rather, he has been a proponent of an expediency that is shameful and criminal in the eyes of Almighty God.”

In response to Bishop DiMarzio, Paul Moses, who lives in the Diocese of Brooklyn and writes for Commonweal, took the bishop to task for misrepresenting Margaret Sanger. Moses admitted that Sanger “did make some controversial and chilling remarks,” but cited and The FactChecker to defend Sanger against the charge that she wanted to “prevent black babies from being born.” (The bias of these sources in favor of Sanger has been exposed here.)

Paul Moses then chastised the bishop, saying his criticism of those who voted for Obama “would be more persuasive had he not publicly supported pro-choice candidates himself.” Moses cited robo-calls Bishop DiMarzio made thanking county Democratic leader Vito Lopez and a picture of the bishop with Mayor Bloomberg in “a full-page campaign advertisement in the diocesan newspaper.”

Without citing any evidence, Moses accused Bishop DiMarzio of a “political payback” to both Lopez and Bloomberg for “opposing a bill to change the statute of limitations on lawsuits over sexual abuse, and to Bloomberg for  his involvement in private fundraising for Catholic schools.” More on that charge later.

Regarding his defense of Margaret Sanger, Paul Moses is clearly wrong. Bishop DiMarzio is exactly right: Sanger viewed birth control as a way of “eliminating the unfit” and specifically targeted African-Americans in her crusade for racial cleansing. Sanger did not want her effort to be viewed as an elimination of African-Americans, though she advocated contraception to decrease the number of African-American babies being born.

“It seems to me from my experience . . . in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors, they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table. . . . They do not do this with the white people, and if we can train the Negro doctor at the clinic, he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching results. . . . His work, in my opinion, should be entirely with the Negro profession and the nurses, hospital, social workers, as well as the County's white doctors. His success will depend upon his personality and his training by us. The minister's work is also important, and also he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation, as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs.”(1939)
Prof. Robert George of Princeton University, comments:

“Apologists for Sanger claim that the context makes clear that the italicized words are innocent.  They weren’t.  Read in light of her support for eugenics ideas and policies, plainly she wanted to reduce the black population, which made up a significant portion of the poor, even if she did not seek genocide or extermination.”

The above quote from Sanger is not an isolated case. In 1921, she wrote:  “Eugenics is … the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.” ("The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda", October 1921, page 5). From this, one can only assume Sanger considered contraception as a solution to “racial and social problems” by reducing births to people of a certain race. 

There is no doubt which race Sanger had in mind. In her Autobiography, Sanger provides an account of her speaking at a Ku Klux Klan event, and her enthusiasm that the success of her remarks generated “a dozen invitations to speak to similar groups.”

“Always to me any aroused group was a good group, and therefore I accepted an invitation to talk to the women's branch of the Ku Klux Klan at Silver Lake, New Jersey, one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing. . . Never before had I looked into a sea of faces like these. I was sure that if I uttered one word, such as abortion, outside the usual vocabulary of these women they would go off into hysteria. And so my address that night had to be in the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand. In the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose. A dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered. The conversation went on and on, and when we were finally through it was too late to return to New York.”  (Sanger’s Autobiography, p. 366)

What kind of birth control message from Sanger to a KKK rally would have generated “a dozen invitations to speak to similar groups?” Another question: Why would such a distinguished Catholic magazine as Commonweal defend the credentials of a figure who openly supported the racist and violent Ku Klux Klan, whose members at the time were lynching African Americans and getting away with it?

In a 1924 recorded radio broadcast, Sanger said:

“We must make this country into a garden of children instead of a disorderly back lot overrun with human weeds. In a home where there are too many children in proportion to the living space, the air and sunlight, the children are usually overcrowded and underfed. They are a constant burden on their mother's overtaxed strength and the father's earning capacity. Such homes cannot be gardens in any sense of the word.” Radio WFAB Syracuse.

Prof. George points out that this quote is not directly about race, “but the reference to ‘human weeds’ and the desire to ‘breed a race of human thoroughbreds’ is profoundly revealing of her eugenicist mindset.”

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Mary Beth Bonacci, noted Catholic speaker and author of Real Love: Answers to Your Questions on Dating, Marriage and the Real Meaning of Sex, adds a personal comment:

"How could you take the countless references to human weeds, inferior races, and sterilization of the unfit in Margaret Sanger's writings out of context? There is no other context. I know. Shortly after Margaret Sanger visited southern Colorado in the 1920's, my Italian immigrant grandmother was sterilized without her knowledge or consent. Sanger was a racist, a eugenicist, and the reason I have no cousins. We were the 'unfit.’"

Regarding the criticism by Paul Moses of Bishop DiMarzio’s public association with Vito Lopez and Mayor Bloomberg, Commonweal provided a live TV feed of the Al Smith Dinner where New York’s Cardinal Dolan sat on the raised dias with President Obama himself.  When a bishop meets with a politician who supports abortion he risks being described either  as “inclusive” or “hypocritical.”

Bishop DiMarzio never endorsed Mayor Bloomberg, and Vito Lopez was not running for re-election when the bishop made his robo-calls thanking him for supporting Catholic education.

The bishop anticipated criticism of his column:

“Some may think my tone a bit strident and even un-nuanced. Maybe the time has come for more direct conversation on these matters, if we hope to preserve what is left of our God-given and Constitutionally-protected rights.”

In a media environment where any slander about Mother Teresa is tolerated, but journalists run to the defense of Margaret Sanger’s racism, the bishop is right to call for “more direct conversation.”

(Column continues below)

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