Margaret Sanger’s “The Pivot of Civilization” Reviewed

Margaret Sanger and the Forced Sterilization of Americans

In rejecting the Marxian hypothesis as superficial and fragmentary, we do so not because of its so-called revolutionary character, its threat to the existing order of things, but rather because of its superficial, emotional and religious character and its deleterious effect upon the life of reason. Like other schemes advanced by the alarmed and the indignant, it relies too much upon moral fervor and enthusiasm. To build any social program upon the shifting sands of sentiment and feeling, of indignation or enthusiasm, is a dangerous and foolish task. On the other hand, we should not minimize the importance of the Socialist movement in so valiantly and so courageously battling against the stagnating complacency of our conservatives and reactionaries, under whose benign imbecility the defective and diseased elements of humanity are encouraged “full speed ahead” in their reckless and irresponsible swarming and spawning. Nevertheless, as George Drysdale pointed out nearly seventy years ago;

“…If we ignore this and other sexual subjects, we may do whatever else we like: we may bully, we may bluster, we may rage, We may foam at the mouth; we may tear down Heaven with our prayers, we may exhaust ourselves with weeping over the sorrows of the poor; we may narcotize ourselves and others with the opiate of Christian resignation; we may dissolve the realities of human woe in a delusive mirage of poetry and ideal philosophy; we may lavish our substance in charity, and labor over possible or impossible Poor Laws; we may form wild dreams of Socialism, industrial regiments, universal brotherhood, red republics, or unexampled revolutions; we may strangle and murder each other, we may persecute and despise those whose sexual necessities force them to break through our unnatural moral codes; we may burn alive if we please the prostitutes and the adulterers; we may break our own and our neighbor’s hearts against the adamantine laws that surround us, but not one step, not one shall we advance, till we acknowledge these laws, and adopt the only possible mode in which they can be obeyed.” These words were written in 1854. Recent events have accentuated their stinging truth.

[1] Marx: “Capital.” Vol. I, p. 675.

[2] Op. cit. pp, 695, 707, 709.

[3] Fabian Essays in Socialism. p. 21.

[4] Uncontrolled Breeding, By Adelyne More. p. 84.

[5] For a sympathetic treatment of modern psychological research as bearing on Communism, by two convinced Communists see “Creative Revolution,” by Eden and Cedar Paul.

[6] Neo-Malthusianisme et Socialisme, p. 22.


CHAPTER VIII: Dangers of Cradle Competition

Eugenics has been defined as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either mentally or physically.” While there is no inherent conflict between Socialism and Eugenics, the latter is, broadly, the antithesis of the former. In its propaganda, Socialism emphasizes the evil effects of our industrial and economic system. It insists upon the necessity of satisfying material needs, upon sanitation, hygiene, and education to effect the transformation of society. The Socialist insists that healthy humanity is impossible without a radical improvement of the social—and therefore of the economic and industrial—environment. The Eugenist points out that heredity is the great determining factor in the lives of men and women. Eugenics is the attempt to solve the problem from the biological and evolutionary point of view. You may ring all the changes possible on “Nurture” or environment, the Eugenist may say to the Socialist, but comparatively little can be effected until you control biological and hereditary elements of the problem. Eugenics thus aims to seek out the root of our trouble, to study humanity as a kinetic, dynamic, evolutionary organism, shifting and changing with the successive generations, rising and falling, cleansing itself of inherent defects, or under adverse and dysgenic influences, sinking into degeneration and deterioration.

“Eugenics” was first defined by Sir Francis Galton in his “Human Faculty” in 1884, and was subsequently developed into a science and into an educational effort. Galton’s ideal was the rational breeding of human beings. The aim of Eugenics, as defined by its founder, is to bring as many influences as can be reasonably employed, to cause the useful classes of the community to contribute MORE than their proportion to the next generation. Eugenics thus concerns itself with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage. It is, in short, the attempt to bring reason and intelligence to bear upon HEREDITY. But Galton, in spite of the immense value of this approach and his great stimulation to criticism, was completely unable to formulate a definite and practical working program. He hoped at length to introduce Eugenics “into the national conscience like a new religion….I see no impossibility in Eugenics becoming a religious dogma among mankind, but its details must first be worked out sedulously in the study. Over-zeal leading to hasty action, would do harm by holding out expectations of a new golden age, which will certainly be falsified and cause the science to be discredited. The first and main point is to secure the general intellectual acceptance of Eugenics as a hopeful and most important study. Then, let its principles work into the heart of the nation, who will gradually give practical effect to them in ways that we may not wholly foresee.”[1]

Galton formulated a general law of inheritance which declared that an individual receives one-half of his inheritance from his two parents, one-fourth from his four grandparents, one-eighth from his great-grandparents, one-sixteenth from his great-great grandparents, and so on by diminishing fractions to his primordial ancestors, the sum of all these fractions added together contributing to the whole of the inherited make-up. The trouble with this generalization, from the modern Mendelian point of view, is that it fails to define what “characters” one would get in the one-half that came from one’s parents, or the one-fourth from one’s grandparents. The whole of our

inheritance is not composed of these indefinitely made up fractional parts. We are interested rather in those more specific traits or characters, mental or physical, which, in the Mendelian view, are structural and functional units, making up a mosaic rather than a blend. The laws of heredity are concerned with the precise behavior, during a series of generations, of these specific unit characters.

This behavior, as the study of Genetics shows, may be determined in lesser organisms by experiment. Once determined, they are subject to prophecy.

The problem of human heredity is now seen to be infinitely more complex than imagined by Galton and his followers, and the optimistic hope of elevating Eugenics to the level of a religion is a futile one. Most of the Eugenists, including Professor Karl Pearson and his colleagues of the Eugenics Laboratory of the University of London and of the biometric laboratory in University College, have retained the age-old point of view of “Nature vs. Nurture” and have attempted to show the predominating influence of Heredity AS OPPOSED TO Environment. This may be true; but demonstrated and repeated in investigation after investigation, it nevertheless remains fruitless and unprofitable from the practical point of view.

We should not minimize the great outstanding service of Eugenics for critical and diagnostic investigations. It demonstrates, not in terms of glittering generalization but in statistical studies of investigations reduced to measurement and number, that uncontrolled fertility is universally correlated with disease, poverty, overcrowding and the transmission of hereditable taints. Professor Pearson and his associates show us that “if fertility be correlated with anti-social hereditary characters, a population will inevitably degenerate.”

This degeneration has already begun. Eugenists demonstrate that two-thirds of our manhood of military age are physically too unfit to shoulder a rifle; that the feeble-minded, the syphilitic, the irresponsible and the defective breed unhindered; that women are driven into factories and shops on day-shift and night-shift; that children, frail carriers of the torch of life, are put to work at an early age; that society at large is breeding an ever-increasing army of under-sized, stunted and dehumanized slaves; that the vicious circle of mental and physical defect, delinquency and beggary is encouraged, by the unseeing and unthinking sentimentality of our age, to populate asylum, hospital and prison.

All these things the Eugenists sees and points out with a courage entirely admirable. But as a positive program of redemption, orthodox

Eugenics can offer nothing more “constructive” than a renewed “cradle competition” between the “fit” and the “unfit.” It sees that the most responsible and most intelligent members of society are the less fertile; that the feeble-minded are the more fertile. Herein lies the unbalance, the great biological menace to the future of civilization. Are we heading to biological destruction, toward the gradual but certain attack upon the stocks of intelligence and racial health by the sinister forces of the hordes of irresponsibility and imbecility? This is not such a remote danger as the optimistic Eugenist might suppose. The mating of the moron with a person of sound stock may, as Dr. Tredgold points out, gradually disseminate this trait far and wide until it undermines the vigor and efficiency of an entire nation and an entire race. This is no idle fancy. We must take it into account if we wish to escape the fate that has befallen so many civilizations in the past.

“It is, indeed, more than likely that the presence of this impairment in a mitigated form is responsible for no little of the defective character, the diminution of mental and moral fiber at the present day,” states Dr. Tredgold.[2] Such populations, this distinguished authority might have added, form the veritable “cultures” not only for contagious physical diseases but for mental instability and irresponsibility also. They are susceptible, exploitable, hysterical, non-resistant to external suggestion. Devoid of stamina, such folk become mere units in a mob. “The habit of crowd-making is daily becoming a more serious menace to civilization,” writes Everett Dean Martin. “Our society is becoming a veritable babel of gibbering crowds.”[3] It would be only the incorrigible optimist who refused to see the integral relation between this phenomenon and the indiscriminate breeding by which we recruit our large populations.

The danger of recruiting our numbers from the most “fertile stocks” is further emphasized when we recall that in a democracy like that of the United States every man and woman is permitted a vote in the government, and that it is the representatives of this grade of intelligence who may destroy our liberties, and who may thus be the most far-reaching peril to the future of civilization.

“It is a pathological worship of mere number,” writes Alleyne Ireland, “which has inspired all the efforts—the primary, the direct election of Senators, the initiative, the recall and the referendum— to cure the evils of mob rule by increasing the size of the mob and extending its powers.”[4]

Equality of political power has thus been bestowed upon the lowest elements of our population. We must not be surprised, therefore, at the spectacle of political scandal and graft, of the notorious and universally ridiculed low level of intelligence and flagrant stupidity exhibited by our legislative bodies. The Congressional Record mirrors our political imbecility.

All of these dangers and menaces are acutely realized by the Eugenists; it is to them that we are most indebted for the proof that reckless spawning carries with it the seeds of destruction. But whereas the Galtonians reveal themselves as unflinching in their investigation and in their exhibition of fact and diagnoses of symptoms, they do not on the other hand show much power in suggesting practical and feasible remedies.

On its scientific side, Eugenics suggests the reestabilishment of the balance between the fertility of the “fit” and the “unfit.” The birth-rate among the normal and healthier and finer stocks of humanity, is to be increased by awakening among the “fit” the realization of the dangers of a lessened birth-rate in proportion to the reckless breeding among the “unfit.” By education, by persuasion, by appeals to racial ethics and religious motives, the ardent Eugenist hopes to increase the fertility of the “fit.” Professor Pearson thinks that it is especially necessary to awaken the hardiest stocks to this duty. These stocks, he says, are to be found chiefly among the skilled artisan class, the intelligent working class. Here is a fine combination of health and hardy vigor, of sound body and sound mind.

Professor Pearson and his school of biometrics here ignore or at least fail to record one of those significant “correlations” which form the basis of his method. The publications of the Eugenics Laboratory all tend to show that a high rate of fertility is correlated with extreme poverty, recklessness, deficiency and delinquency; similarly, that among the more intelligent, this rate of fertility decreases. But the scientific Eugenists fail to recognize that this restraint of fecundity is due to a deliberate foresight and is a conscious effort to elevate standards of living for the family and the children of the responsible—and possibly more selfish—sections of the community. The appeal to enter again into competitive child-bearing, for the benefit of the nation or the race, or any other abstraction, will fall on deaf ears.

Pearson has done invaluable work in pointing out the fallacies and the false conclusions of the ordinary statisticians. But when he attempts to show by the methods of biometrics that not only the first child but also the second, are especially liable to suffer from transmissible pathological defects, such as insanity, criminality and tuberculosis, he fails to recognize that this tendency is counterbalanced by the high mortality rate among later children. If first and second children reveal a greater percentage of heritable defect, it is because the later born children are less liable to survive the conditions produced by a large family.

In passing, we should here recognize the difficulties presented by the idea of “fit” and “unfit.” Who is to decide this question? The grosser, the more obvious, the undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind. But among the writings of the representative Eugenists one cannot ignore the distinct middle-class bias that prevails. As that penetrating critic, F. W. Stella Browne, has said in another connection, “The Eugenics Education Society has among its numbers many most open-minded and truly progressive individuals but the official policy it has pursued for years has been inspired by class-bias and sex bias. The society laments with increasing vehemence the multiplication of the less fortunate classes at a more rapid rate than the possessors of leisure and opportunity. (I do not think it relevant here to discuss whether the innate superiority of endowment in the governing class really is so overwhelming as to justify the Eugenics Education Society’s peculiar use of the terms ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’!) Yet it has persistently refused to give any help toward extending the knowledge of contraceptives to the exploited classes. Similarly, though the Eugenics Review, the organ of the society, frequently laments the ‘selfishness’ of the refusal of maternity by healthy and educated women of the professional classes, I have yet to learn that it has made any official pronouncement on the English illegitimacy laws or any organized effort toward defending the unmarried mother.”

This peculiarly Victorian reticence may be inherited from the founder of Eugenics. Galton declared that the “Bohemian” element in the Anglo-Saxon race is destined to perish, and “the sooner it goes, the happier for mankind.” The trouble with any effort of trying to divide humanity into the “fit” and the “unfit,” is that we do not want, as H. G. Wells recently pointed out,[5] to breed for uniformity but for variety. “We want statesmen and poets and musicians and philosophers and strong men and delicate men and brave men. The qualities of one would be the weaknesses of the other.” We want, most of all, genius.

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