Eugenics and Birth Control

Michelle Goldberg’s review of America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation discusses the ties of the early birth control movement to the eugenics movement:

May quotes a letter that Sanger wrote to her friend and patron, the heiress Katharine Dexter McCormick: “I consider that the world and almost our civilization for the next twenty-five years, is going to depend upon a simple, cheap, safe, contraceptive to be used in poverty stricken slums, jungles, and among the most ignorant people.” She went on to call for immediate “national sterilization for certain dysgenic types.

One of the central tensions in Sanger’s work, then, was between her commitment to reproductive freedom and her willingness to sanction reproductive coercion. A similar tension is at work throughout the history May recounts. McCormick, a brilliant feminist who was the second woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bankrolled the pill out of a commitment to women’s rights. But as May writes, the scientists and doctors who developed the pill never envisioned it as an agent of female emancipation. Rather, they “hailed it as a miracle drug that would solve the global problem of overpopulation, thereby reducing poverty and human misery, especially in the developing world.” They also hoped it would improve marital sex and domestic harmony, strengthening the nuclear family. In other words, they saw it as a tool for preserving existing power relations, not shaking them up.

It’s worth observing that despite the considerable intellectual tension between these two ideas, in practice around the world what we’ve found is that when women are empowered to control their own reproductive choices they tend to choose to have relatively few children.