Herman Cain has offered an alternate version of history in claiming that Planned Parenthood’s founder wanted to prevent “black babies from being born.” We find no support for that old claim. Cain also states that the organization built 75 percent of its clinics in black communities, but there’s no evidence that was true then. And today, only 9 percent of U.S. abortion clinics are in neighborhoods where half or more of residents are black, according to the most recent statistics.
The GOP presidential candidate made these comments back in March, telling an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation that “[w]hen Margaret Sanger — check my history — started Planned Parenthood, the objective was to put these centers in primarily black communities so they could help kill black babies before they came into the world.” He called it “planned genocide.”
In an interview on “Face the Nation” on Oct. 30, Cain did not back down from those allegations. Here’s his exchange with host Bob Schieffer:
Schieffer: … you said that it was not Planned Parenthood, it was really planned genocide because you said Planned Parenthood was trying to put all these centers into the black communities because they wanted to kill black babies —
Herman Cain: Yes.
Scheiffer: — before they were born. Do you still stand by that?
Cain: I still stand by that.
Schieffer: Do you have any proof that that was the objective of Planned Parenthood?
Cain: If people go back and look at the history and look at Margaret Sanger’s own words, that’s exactly where that came from. Look up the history. So if you go back and look up the history — secondly, look at where most of them were built; 75 percent of those facilities were built in the black community — and Margaret Sanger’s own words, she didn’t use the word “genocide,” but she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.
Cain isn’t the first to believe that birth control advocate Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) wanted to stop the birth of black babies. Just do an Internet search and see what happens. Sanger made more than her share of controversial comments. But the quote many point to as evidence that Sanger favored something akin to “genocide” of African Americans has been turned on its head.
Sanger, who was arrested several times in her efforts to bring birth control to women in the United States, set up her first clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. In the late 1930s, she sought to bring clinics to black women in the South, in an effort that was called the “Negro Project.” Sanger wrote in 1939 letters to colleague Clarence James Gamble that she believed the project needed a black physician and black minister to gain the trust of the community:
Sanger, 1939: The minister’s work is also important and 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 to any of their more rebellious members.
Sanger says that a minister could debunk the notion, if it arose, that the clinics aimed to “exterminate the Negro population.” She didn’t say that she wanted to “exterminate” the black population. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University says that this quote has “gone viral on the Internet,” normally out of context, and it “doesn’t reflect the fact that Sanger recognized elements within the black community might mistakenly associate the Negro Project with racist sterilization campaigns in the Jim Crow south, unless clergy and other community leaders spread the word that the Project had a humanitarian aim.”
It goes on to characterize beliefs such as Cain’s as “extremist.” The project says: “No serious scholar and none of the dozens of black leaders who supported Sanger’s work have ever suggested that she tried to reduce the black population or set up black abortion mills, the implication in much of the extremist anti-choice material.”
We asked the Cain campaign for support for his claims, and we have not received a response. His comments already have been debunked by our fact-checking colleagues at the Washington Post, which today gave Cain four Pinocchios, and Politifact, which gave him the “Pants on Fire” designation in March.
Sanger, as we mentioned, was a controversial figure. While she is heralded for her work in making birth control available, and legal, she was also tied to the eugenics movement, which believed the human species could be improved by controlling who reproduced and who didn’t. One essay from Sanger shows she believed birth control advocates and eugenists were working toward a similar goal — “to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” But she disagreed with some of the eugenists’ methods.
Sanger, “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” Feb. 1919: We who advocate Birth Control, on the other hand, lay all our emphasis upon stopping not only the reproduction of the unfit but upon stopping all reproduction when there is not economic means of providing proper care for those who are born in health. The eugenist also believes that a woman should bear as many healthy children as possible as a duty to the state. …
We maintain that a woman possessing an adequate knowledge of her reproductive functions is the best judge of the time and conditions under which her child should be brought into the world. We further maintain that it is her right, regardless of all other considerations, to determine whether she shall bear children or not, and how many children she shall bear if she chooses to become a mother.
She goes on to talk about the financial benefits of birth control, saying that it “will make a better race,” because a family can better care for a smaller number of children.
Sanger’s early 20th century clinics later grew into what is now Planned Parenthood, and the group is aware that its founder had some views that it doesn’t agree with today. In response to the controversy over Sanger, Veronica Byrd, director of African American media at Planned Parenthood, issued a statement saying:
Byrd: Planned Parenthood has a long history of condemning racism and opposes discrimination in all forms. Margaret Sanger worked for social and racial justice at a time when segregation was the law of the land. She was invited by African American leaders to help provide health care to women in the African American community and her work was praised by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For all her positive work, Margaret Sanger made statements some 80 years ago that were wrong then and are wrong now. Those statements have no bearing on the high quality health care Planned Parenthood provides today.
In 1966, Planned Parenthood awarded Martin Luther King Jr. one of its Margaret Sanger Awards, and he praised her in his acceptance speech, delivered by his wife, Coretta Scott King, saying: “At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions.”
75 Percent of Clinics in Black Neighborhoods?
Cain also claimed that “75 percent of [clinics] were built in the black community.” But we found no evidence that that was true in Sanger’s time, and it’s not true today.
Sanger’s first clinic, opened in 1916, was in Brooklyn in a neighborhood called Brownsville, which was 80 percent to 85 percent Jewish in 1910 and 1920, according to author Wendell E. Pritchett’s “Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews & the Changing Face of the Ghetto.” Cathy Moran Hajo writes that the neighborhood was “populated largely by Italians and Eastern European Jews” in “Birth Control on Main Street: Organizing Clinics in the United States, 1916-1939.” She says that Sanger didn’t choose to open her first clinic in Harlem, where infant and mother mortality rates were similar to those of Brownsville.
In fact, early birth control clinics didn’t welcome black women with open arms, Hajo writes: “In the 1920s and early 1930s, African Americans had far more limited access to birth control than did white women. Not only did many clinics discriminate against black women, but the regions with the largest black populations had fewer clinics.”
Sanger opened a clinic in Harlem in 1930, and, as mentioned, the “Negro Project” began in the late 1930s.
That doesn’t support Cain’s implication that Sanger’s “objective was to put these centers in primarily black communities,” or that “75 percent” of clinics were in such neighborhoods. It should also be noted that these early clinics were focused on providing birth control, and Sanger herself warned of the dangers of abortion. “While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization,” she wrote in her 1920 book “Woman and the New Race.”
Cain’s claim also isn’t true today. Tait Sye, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, told us in an email that “73% of Planned Parenthood health centers are located in rural or medically underserved areas.” Not all of those would be predominately black communities.
Also, the Guttmacher Institute reported this year that 9 percent of abortion clinics in the U.S. are in neighborhoods in which 50 percent or more of the residents are black. That’s according to the group’s “census of all known abortion providers.”
— Lori Robertson