NPR logo Fact Check: Was Planned Parenthood Started To 'Control' The Black Population?

Fact Check

Fact Check: Was Planned Parenthood Started To 'Control' The Black Population?

A Planned Parenthood location in New York City. The organization is a presidential-campaign target. i

A Planned Parenthood location in New York City. The organization is a presidential-campaign target. Andrew Burton/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Andrew Burton/Getty Images
A Planned Parenthood location in New York City. The organization is a presidential-campaign target.

A Planned Parenthood location in New York City. The organization is a presidential-campaign target.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Ben Carson alleged in an interview with Fox News Wednesday that Planned Parenthood puts most of its clinics in black neighborhoods to "control the population" and that its founder, Margaret Sanger, "was not particularly enamored with black people."

Planned Parenthood has been a target on the campaign trail after a series of sting videos was released alleging the organization illegally profits from selling aborted fetal tissue. Carson, a famed neurosurgeon turned Republican presidential candidate, has been a vocal opponent of the group. He was also in the news this week after reports surfaced that he once used aborted fetal tissue for research.

Here's a closer look at Carson's comments:

What Carson said

On Fox News Wednesday, Carson was asked about Democrats' criticism that Republicans who want to defund Planned Parenthood are waging a "war on women." He responded:

"Maybe I am not objective when it comes to Planned Parenthood, but, you know, I know who Margaret Sanger is, and I know that she believed in eugenics, and that she was not particularly enamored with black people.

"And one of the reasons you find most of their clinics in black neighborhoods is so that you can find a way to control that population. I think people should go back and read about Margaret Sanger who founded this place — a woman Hillary Clinton by the way says that she admires. Look and see what many people in Nazi Germany thought about her."

It's not the first time Planned Parenthood has faced criticism about its founder and the placement of its clinics — former presidential candidate Herman Cain made a similar statement in 2011.

What Planned Parenthood said

In response, Planned Parenthood said Carson was not only "wrong on the facts, he's flat-out insulting." Alencia Johnson, assistant director of constituency communications, told NPR:

"Does he think that black women are somehow less capable of making the deeply personal decision about whether to end a pregnancy than other women? ... It's a shame that a doctor, who should understand the barriers black women face accessing high-quality preventive and reproductive health care services, would pander so clearly to anti-abortion extremists on the right."

Did Margaret Sanger believe in eugenics?

Yes, but not in the way Carson implied.

Eugenics was a discipline, championed by prominent scientists but now widely debunked, that promoted "good" breeding and aimed to prevent "poor" breeding. The idea was that the human race could be bettered through encouraging people with traits like intelligence, hard work, cleanliness (thought to be genetic) to reproduce. Eugenics was taken to its horrifying extreme during the Holocaust, through forced sterilizations and breeding experiments.

In the United States, eugenics intersected with the birth control movement in the 1920s, and Sanger reportedly spoke at eugenics conferences. She also talked about birth control being used to facilitate "the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives."

Historians seem to disagree on just how involved in the eugenics movement she was. Some contend her involvement was for political reasons — to win support for birth control.

In reading her papers, it is clear Sanger had bought into the movement. She once wrote that "consequences of breeding from stock lacking human vitality always will give us social problems and perpetuate institutions of charity and crime."

"That Sanger was enamored and supported some eugenicists' ideas is certainly true," said Susan Reverby, a health care historian and professor at Wellesley College. But, Reverby added, Sanger's main argument was not eugenics — it was that "Sanger thought people should have the children they wanted."

It was a radical idea for the time.

Sanger wrote about this mission herself in 1921: "The almost universal demand for practical education in Birth Control is one of the most hopeful signs that the masses themselves today possess the divine spark of regeneration."

Was Sanger "not particularly enamored with black people"?

Sanger's birth control movement did have support in black neighborhoods, beginning in the '20s when there were leagues in Harlem started by African-Americans. Sanger also worked closely with NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois on a "Negro Project," which she viewed as a way to get safe contraception to African-Americans.

In 1946, Sanger wrote about the importance of giving "Negro" parents a choice in how many children they would have.

"The Negro race has reached a place in its history when every possible effort should be made to have every Negro child count as a valuable contribution to the future of America," she wrote. "Negro parents, like all parents, must create the next generation from strength, not from weakness; from health, not from despair."

Her attitude toward African-Americans can certainly be viewed as paternalistic, but there is no evidence she subscribed to the more racist ideas of the time or that she coerced black women into using birth control. In fact, for her time, as the Washington Post noted, "she would likely be considered to have advanced views on race relations."

Are most of Planned Parenthood's clinics in black neighborhoods?

In 2014, the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research center, surveyed all known abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood clinics, in the U.S. (nearly 2,000) and found that 60 percent are in majority-white neighborhoods.

Planned Parenthood has not released numbers on the neighborhoods of its specific clinics, but responding to a request for demographic information, the organization said that in 2013, 14 percent of its patients nationwide were black. That's nearly equal to the proportion of the African-American population in the U.S.

However, Carson is tapping into a more subtle sentiment — the targeting of African-Americans in health care systems. There have been documented cases of that happening, including the now-infamous Tuskegee study. Starting in the 1930s, the Tuskegee Institute enrolled black sharecroppers in experiments and allowed them to suffer from syphilis untreated, though they were told they were getting treatment.

And, Wellesley's Reverby said, that was sometimes the case for birth control clinics historically, too. They may have been available in communities where more general health care was not, raising some ethical questions.

"One of the issues is ... what happens when you can find birth control clinics but you can't find primary care? It's just a question of what the state's willing to provide for," Reverby said. "Was there overuse of birth control and sterilization in poor communities in some states? Absolutely. It's a complicated story."

Did Sanger have a connection to Nazi Germany?

Not that NPR found. Sanger herself wrote in 1939 that she had joined the Anti-Nazi Committee "and gave money, my name and any influence I had with writers and others, to combat Hitler's rise to power in Germany."

She also said books of hers had been destroyed and that she had intellectual friends who were sent to concentration camps or put to death. Sanger did not have a connection to the Nazis, but a loose association comes through her involvement in the eugenics movement.

American and German eugenicists closely collaborated, and the Nazis reportedly borrowed much of their 1933 so-called sterilization law from American models. That law allowed the government to forcibly sterilize people with alleged genetic disorders.

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