Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
The Pill
The Film and More
Special Features
Timeline
Gallery
People and Events
Teacher's Guide


spacer above content
People & Events: Eugenics and Birth Control

In 1883 a British biologist named Francis Galton combined the roots of the Greek words for "good" and "origin" to create the term "eugenics" for an applied science based on genetics and breeding. The "science" of eugenics proposed that human perfection could be developed through selective breeding. In the late nineteenth century researchers developed the idea, a blend of genetic research and social theory. Eugenics soon crossed the Atlantic and by the 1920s and 1930s was adopted by mainstream scientists, doctors and the general public.

Positive and Negative Approaches
The eugenics movement had two basic strands. Advocates of "positive" eugenics believed in promoting childbearing by the "fit" classes. Those who supported "negative" eugenics stood for the discouragement and suppression of reproduction among people of "inferior stock." Within these two camps, the definitions of who would be classified as "fit" and "unfit" varied greatly.

A Vehicle for Racism and Nativism
Some eugenicists separated the "fit" and "unfit" classes along racist and nativist lines. Under this eugenics model, those considered most worthy of rearing children were couples who were middle class or upper class Nordic-Teutonic whites. Racial minorities and ethnic immigrant groups were typically classified as unfit. The poor and physically handicapped, whose problems were classified as hereditary, were also in this negative category. Eugenics supporters pushed middle and upper-class "native" whites to have large families. In some circles eugenicists went as far as declaring birth control selfish and a form of "racial suicide." The same people believed that blacks and other minorities should not reproduce. Although eugenicists did not promote contraceptive use, fearing that the "unfit" would not use the methods properly, sterilization was often promoted as the best option to limit their numbers.

Eugenics and Birth Control
Margaret Sanger's birth control movement and quest for the Pill intersected the rise of the eugenics movement in America. At a time when birth control was still not publicly accepted in American society, some eugenicists believed birth control was a useful tool for curbing procreation among the "weak." In the 1920s and 30s, Sanger calculated that the success of the eugenics idea gave her own movement legitimacy, and tried to ally her cause with the movement. Eugenics was a dominant theme at her birth control conferences, and Sanger spoke publicly of the need to put an end to breeding by the unfit. In 1920 Sanger publicly stated that "birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives."

What Did Sanger Believe?
Sanger's relationship with the eugenics movement was complex -- part strategy and part ideology. Many historians now believe that Sanger opposed eugenics along racial lines. Furthermore, Sanger opposed the belief of many eugenicists that poverty was hereditary, asserting instead that poverty, criminal behavior and other social problems were due to environmental factors and were not predetermined.

Suspect Intentions
Following World War II and the Holocaust, the science of eugenics was discredited. It was soon forgotten by many. But when Margaret Sanger was being lauded for her role in the creation of the Pill in the 1960s, many in the African American community recalled her association with eugenics. Suspicious of her intentions to begin with, some were appalled by her ongoing support of the population control movement.

Legacy of Distrust
Some African Americans believed that Sanger's motive was not to aid black women but to eliminate future black generations. In promoting the development of the birth control pill in the 1950s, Sanger had heralded it as the panacea to world overpopulation, starvation and hunger. Sanger wrote: "I consider that the world, and almost our civilization for the next 25 years, is going to depend on a simple, cheap, safe, contraceptive to be used in poverty stricken slums, jungles and among the most ignorant people." Although African American women appreciated the effectiveness and reliability of oral contraceptives, and used the method in large numbers, they resented the way white-dominated organizations seemed to push the Pill in black communities.





previous | return to people & events | next


Site Navigation

The Pill Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline
Gallery | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2001 PBS Online / WGBH



Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: