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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Eight

The Take-Down; Margaret Sanger, My Mother & Me



I plan to be a mother some day. 'Til then I'm using the Pill.

Planned Parenthood Poster


The removal of Margaret Sanger's name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood's contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.

                   -Karen Seltzer, CEO Planned Parenthood, New York City



My mother worked pro bono at least one day a week at the Margaret Sanger clinic in Manhattan in the 1950's and 1960's. She was an obstetrician-gynecologist responsible for exams, pap smears, birth control information, fitting diaphragms and, eventually, artificial inseminations for women unable to become pregnant. The clinic served all women—it was a clinic--and women of all colors, ethnicities, immigrant status, and economic status waited their turn to be seen by the medical staff. I went there as a college student, age 17, for my first diaphragm. I didn't need anyone's permission; I went on my own on a day my mother was not there. My memory is that the clinic had a sliding scale and that I paid $10. I sat in the waiting room feeling proud and free. Then I told my mother I'd been for my first gynecological check-up and she was proud of me.

Margaret Sanger—born in 1897—was already living in Tucson when my mother began to work at the flagship clinic, but occasionally came to visit, introduced herself to the staff, attended a meeting, and disappeared. She was a heroine to my emancipated, European doctor mother whose uncle Arnold, a socialist in the tradition of European Democratic Socialism, was a doctor for the trolley union in Vienna. Sanger was also a socialist. She believed, as did my mother, that clinics serving women of all backgrounds are mandated to deliver medical care fairly and indiscriminately. The concept of "concierge" medicine would have horrified my mother, though a privileged upper-middle class lifestyle supported by a private practice, did not horrify her. No person is all one thing. Nor was Margaret Sanger. Layered through her courageous feminist activism are ideas about selective breeding; she was a eugenicist. We cannot revise or erase the words she wrote or spoke over many years. Nor is it enough to say that these ideas were common at the time they were expressed; or that they were heedless. Racist ideas are dangerous. They incite violence; they legitimate genocide. I do not know if my mother or the other workers in the clinic were aware of Sanger's eugenicist ideas or discussed them. As a refugee from genocide, and a trained physician, I doubt my mother would have entertained them in any way, or given them scientific credence.

The decision to change the name of the Manhattan clinic, and to remove a Margaret Sanger street name, arrives amid an unrelenting right-wing campaign against a woman's right to choose and the essential medical services offered by Planned Parenthood. I understand its' necessity at this profound moment of correction in American historical narratives, but removing monuments is always fraught, and this one feels personal to me.

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