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From Darwin and Galton to Sanger and Planned Parenthood, John West Traces the Evolution of an Idea

David Klinghoffer


“Family planning” is one of the euphemisms that have wrapped what Planned Parenthood does behind a mystic veil. The phrase sounds like it should mean what you do once you have a family, prudently planning and budgeting for college tuition, weddings, orthodontia, and the like. I think what shocked a lot of people about the surreptitiously obtained Planned Parenthood videos is less the apparent trafficking in aborted baby parts, legal or illegal, and more the look behind the scenes at the way Planned Parenthood staff talk and behave when they think no one is watching.

The casual, candid chatter about human beings as a kind of waste or byproduct is what really drew back a curtain, resulting in the congressional hearings going on now that seek to withdraw a half billion dollars in yearly taxpayer support that the group receives.

Everyone knew Planned Parenthood is a major provider and advocate of abortions. Ubiquitous, with seven hundred “health centers” around the country, it’s the McDonald’s of that grim industry. How did the planners become butchers?

Discovery Institute’s John West has been filling in some of the fascinating, and chilling, historical background. A line of intellectual descent links Darwin to PP founder Margaret Sanger to the revelation of those videos.

Writing at The Stream, Dr. West notes the irony that Sanger continues to be lionized as a hero, despite her horrific beliefs, derived from Social Darwinism and eugenics, advocated by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, the “effort to breed a superior human race in the name of Darwinian biology”:

In Sanger’s view, humanitarianism threatened to swamp America with a tidal wave of the “feeble-minded.” As I explain in my book Darwin Day in America, feeblemindedness was an expansive category that included many people who today wouldn’t be considered mentally handicapped, including members of races (like blacks) considered by Darwinian biologists of the time to be “lower” on the evolutionary scale. “Feebleminded” persons could read. They could hold jobs. They could appear perfectly normal to everyone else. That’s why they were so dangerous according to eugenists. The feeble-minded could appear so ordinary that non-feebleminded persons might marry them and then spread their defective “germplasm” to the next generation.

Sanger branded the feeble-minded a “menace … to the race” and compared them to “weeds.” In her bestselling book The Pivot of Civilization, she wrote that “our eyes should be opened to the terrific cost to the community of this dead weight of human waste.”

Sanger and other eugenists argued that the feeble-minded must be prevented through compulsory sterilization from reproducing themselves.

So much for “freedom of choice” in having children.

Sanger prosecuted her crusade against the feeble-minded across America. At Vassar College in 1926, she spoke in apocalyptic terms about the ruinous costs to taxpayers of social spending to care for defectives, warning that “the American public is taxed, heavily taxed, to maintain an increasing race of morons, which threatens the very foundations of our civilization.” The same year she presented her message to a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey. Her Klan talk was such a rousing success according to Sanger that afterward “a dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered.”

Following World War II, the American crusade for sterilization in the name of eugenics largely moved underground after Americans learned of the horrors of the Nazi eugenics program.

Sanger, however, remained uncowed. She continued to publicly advocate a national sterilization policy, although she lamented that because of the Nazis “the word has acquired some unpleasant connotations which it does not deserve.”

If you think Sanger’s views are completely out of sync with Planned Parenthood’s current leadership, consider the views of her grandson Alexander. Chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, Alexander Sanger champions abortion as a practice that evolved through Darwinian natural selection to help humans survive.

“Humanity has evolved to take conscious control of reproduction and has done so in order to survive,” he declares. “… We cannot repeal the laws of natural selection. Nature does not let every life form survive. Humanity uniquely, and to its benefit, can exercise some dominion over this process.”

In other words, abortion allows us to eradicate some children so that other children might survive and the human species improve.

Others have picked up on the Darwinian connection. The cover story in World Magazine tells the story of Americans currently living who fell victims to forced sterilizations drives. Such efforts to keep supposedly unfit parents from “breeding” only began to lose the stamp of prestige scientific approval after the extent of Nazi crimes, similarly justified in the name of Darwinian biology and genetic cleansing, was exposed after World War II.

Amazingly, eugenics by force was finally curtailed in the U.S. only in my own lifetime.

From the 1930s to 1970s, officials from government agencies and eugenics boards across 33 states ordered sterilization for at least 60,000 men, women, and children deemed undesirable or unfit.

Planned Parenthood represents a surviving heritage of that way of thinking.

Mothers do consent to abortions, but much like eugenics programs of the past, leading scientists, doctors, and politicians still approve of a practice that eliminates the unwanted. John West of Discovery Institute (who writes about eugenics in his book Darwin Day in America) says the recent videos released by CMP also show connections with eugenics campaigns of the past.

He notes the dehumanizing rhetoric used by Planned Parenthood workers and officials from the fetal tissue procurement company StemExpress to describe unborn children, and says: “That was the same sort of rhetoric used to target people for forced sterilizations.”

Much like Margaret Sanger referred to lower classes as “human waste,” StemExpress CEO Cate Dyer referred to aborted babies as “waste products.”

It takes an effort to remind ourselves that Sanger’s views were the established science of her day, recognized from Harvard to Stanford, one side of the continent to the other.

Close to my own home, a pretty lakeside park in our Seattle suburb is named in honor of botanist Luther Burbank (1849-1926). Burbank is credited with breeding the popular baking potato variety, the Russet Burbank. He was also a favorite with Margaret Sanger who hailed his eugenic belief, “claiming [that] lower classes are ‘weeds’ to be eliminated.”

Burbank’s potatoes are what you’ll likely get if you order fries at McDonald’s. Darwin’s idea of humans as another animal, suitable to be bred and culled, is what you get at Planned Parenthood.

Image credit: Fibonacci Blue (Flickr: Planned Parenthood in St. Paul) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.