As faithful readers of The Giving Review know, we consciously labor in the shadow of the historic distinction between charity and philanthropy. But rare among students of foundations and nonprofits, we tend to side with the former. This was brought to mind recently when Planned Parenthood of Greater New York removed the name of its national founder, Margaret Sanger, from its Manhattan health clinic because of her “harmful connections to the eugenics movement.”

The philanthropy/charity distinction was central to the eugenics movement. Unlike charity, which allegedly “just put Band-aids” on problems, modern philanthropy promised to get at the root causes of problems and solve them once and for all.  And nothing says “root-cause solution” like eugenics—digging up the defective genes that seemed to explain most of society’s ills, and then eradicating them forever by sterilizing their human hosts.  

By contrast, charity was not only wasteful, as Andrew Carnegie famously argued, it was in fact downright dangerous. But let’s hear it from Sanger herself, in a chapter from her most famous work, The Pivot of Civilization, published in 1922.

In the chapter, tellingly entitled “The Cruelty of Charity,” Sanger writes,

Organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease.

Those vast, complex, interrelated organizations aiming to control and to diminish the spread of misery and destitution and all the menacing evils that spring out of this sinisterly fertile soil, are the surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents. My criticism, therefore, is not directed at the “failure” of philanthropy, but rather at its success.

[Charity] encourages the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste. Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant.

The most serious charge that can be brought against modern “benevolence” is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents. These are the most dangerous elements in the world community, the most devastating curse on human progress and expression.

An important moment

Many pro-life conservatives downplay the significance of Sanger’s defenestration from the New York chapter over her pro-eugenics language. They’re holding out for Planned Parenthood’s repudiation of abortion, which they argue is the modern equivalent of eugenics. But this is not only unrealistic, it also underestimates the importance of this moment.

For decades, acknowledgment of Sanger’s eugenic side was limited to the seemingly shabby, conspiracy-addled world of conservative writers (to call them “scholars” wouldn’t do, since few of them held academic positions at reputable universities). “Real” scholars like Ellen Chesler, a leading Sanger biographer, tended to dismiss her arguments for eugenics by pointing out that, basically, “everybody was doing it” at the time.

Reporting on the Planned Parenthood decision, The New York Times cited Chesler’s view that “the eugenics movement had wide support at the time in both conservative and liberal circles … and Ms. Sanger was squarely in the latter camp.”

Well, if Sanger’s quotes from The Pivot of Civilization reflect a kinder, gentler liberal eugenics, I suppose we’re expected to imagine the very worst about the conservative version. Except, of course, the Catholic Church—presumably the very font of conservative reaction—in fact provided the only major institutional opposition to eugenics at the time.

In today’s climate of wokeness, the “everybody-was-doing-it” excuse no longer stands. Historic actors must be judged not by the complexities and nuances of their times, but rather by today’s unforgiving standards. Conservatives wince when that judgment is used to “cancel” traditionally admired American leaders ranging from the Founders to Lincoln. But it’s now becoming clear that it can also play havoc with the reputation of early American progressives, like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson … and Margaret Sanger. And eugenics turns out to be  progressivism’s heart of darkness.

Equal rigor

Let’s hope this new, skeptical appraisal of Sanger by today’s left opens the possibility of an equally rigorous look at the progressive foundations that provided the financial backing for the eugenics movement. 

After all, Charles Davenport, who directed the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor in New York, was the foremost American champion of eugenics. In a booklet published in 1910, Davenport foreshadowed Sanger’s critique of charity, lamenting that “tens of millions have been given to bolster up the weak and alleviate the suffering of the sick,” while “no important means have been provided to enable us to learn how the stream of weak and susceptible protoplasm may be checked.” He insisted that “vastly more effective than ten million dollars to ‘charity’ would be ten millions to Eugenics. He who, by such a gift, should redeem mankind from vice, imbecility and suffering would be the world’s wisest philanthropist.”

Davenport did in fact attract support from Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and his son, and Mary Harriman, the wealthy widow of railroad magnate E. H. Harriman.  It enabled him to oversee a eugenics crusade that would rightfully be extolled today as the earliest and still the most significant example of root-cause philanthropy. That is, if the root cause hadn’t been based on a bogus understanding of genetics. That is, if the resulting grand strategic philanthropic collaborations and public-private partnerships hadn’t resulted in a series of moral abominations: the sterilization of some 60,000 American “defectives,” the rejection of hundreds of thousands of genetically “deficient” Southern and Eastern European immigrants, and other, far more horrendous results during the years of the Third Reich.

If Planned Parenthood of Greater New York can grapple with the moral legacy of Margaret Sanger—if a leading progressive organization can at last open itself to an interpretation of history that heretofore had been the exclusive domain of supposedly disreputable conservative cranks—we shouldn’t dismiss it, but rather regard it as a welcome first step. Now perhaps conservatives can also find allies on the left to demand a full accounting for eugenics from the progressive foundations that did so much to nurture and propagate it.