Margaret Sanger, "The Limitations of Eugenics," Sept 1921.

Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Microfilm, LCM 130:0044.."

This paper was most likely prepared for the Second International Congress on Eugenics, held on September 23, 1921. A notation by Sanger at the top of first page reads" "refused." A version of this article was published as chapter VIII: Dangers of Cradle Competition in Sanger's book, Pivot of Civilization (1922).


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 dysgenic effects of our industrial and economic system. It insists upon the necessity of satisfying material needs, upon sanitation, hygiene, education in order to effect the transformation of society. Very correctly the Socialist insists that healthy humanity is impossible without a radical improvement of the social–and therefore of the economic and industrial–environment. On the other hand, the Eugenist points out, 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 the changes possible on "Nurture" or environment, the Eugenist might say to the Socialist, but comparatively little can be effected until you control the biological and hereditary elements of the problem. Eugenics [thus?] aims to crystallize the tendency 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 sinking into degeneration and deterioration under adverse and dysgenic influences.

The term " Eugenics" was first used by Sir Francis Galton in his "Human Faculty" in 1884, and was subsequently developed into a scientific method 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 was 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 of 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 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. Galton. Essays in Eugenics: p. 43.

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 sixteen 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 more 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 behaviour, 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.

But 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.

Nevertheless, 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 heritable taints. Professor Pearson and his associates show us that "if fertility be correlated with anti-social hereditary characters, a population will fairly degenerate." This degeneration has already begun. Eugenists are right in pointing out the fact that medical surveys reveal the fact 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 undersized, 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 Eugenist sees and points out with a courage and bravery entirely admirable. But when it comes to a constructive 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 most fertile. Herein lies the unbalance, the great biological menace to the future of civilization. Are we headed to biological destruction, toward the gradual but certain attack upon the stocks of intelligence and racial health by the sinister forces of the over-fecund and irresponsible hordes of irresponsible 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," states Dr. Tredgold, Eugenics Review, Vol. XIII. p. 349. " 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 fibre. . . .which are only too common at the present day." Such populations, this distinguished authority might have added, form the veritable "cultures"not only for contagious physical diseases but of 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 babble of gibbering crowds." Cf. The Behaviour of Crowds. By Everett Dean Martin. It would be only the incorrigible optimist who refused to see the integral relationship 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 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 danger to the future of civilization. "It is a pathogical worship of mere numbers," writes Alleyne Ireland, " which has inspired all the efforts–the primary, the direct election of Senators, the initiate, the recall and the referendum–to cure the evils of mob rule by increasing the size of the mob and extending its powers."

Cf. Democracy and the Human Equation. E. P. Dutton & Co., 1921.

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 so universally ridiculed low level of intelligence and the 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 such power in suggesting practical and feasible remedies.

On its scientific side, Eugenics suggests the re-establishment 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 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, it is the hope of the ardent Eugenist 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, the sound body and the 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 recognise that this restraint of fecundity is due to a deliberate foresight and is a conscious method to elevate standards of living for the family and the children of the most responsible–and possibly the 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 great percentage of heritable defect, it is because the last and 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,5

Population and Birth Control: A Symposium, edited by Eden and Cedar Paul. p. 251.

"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 conservatism may be inherited from the founder of Eugenics himself. 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,

Cf. The Salvaging of Civilization.

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.

Proscription of the Galtonian type would have condemned many of the great geniuses of the world who were not only "Bohemian," but actually and pathologically abnormal–Rousseau, Dostoevsky, Chopin, Poe, Schumann, Nietzsche, Comte, Guy de Maupassant--and how many others? But such considerations should not lead us into the error of concluding that such men were geniuses merely because they were pathological specimens, and that the only way to produce genius is to breed disease and defect. It only emphasizes the dangers of external standards of "fit" and "unfit." Of the relation of Birth Control to genius I shall speak later, since the criticism is often made that this practice might prevent the birth of men of genius. I merely wish to emphasize here the limitations of the current standards of Eugenics.

These limitations are more strikingly shown in the type of so-called "eugenic" legislation passed or proposed by certain enthusiasts. Regulation, compulsion and prohibitions enacted and effected by political bodies, are the surest methods of driving the whole problem underground. As Havelock Ellis has pointed out, the absurdity and even hopelessness of effecting eugenic improvement by placing on the statute books prohibitions of certain classes of people to enter the legal bonds of matrimony reveals the weakness of those eugenists who minimize or undervalue the importance of environment as a determining factor. They affirm that heredity is everything and environment nothing, yet forget that it is precisely those who are most universally subject to bad environment who procreate most copiously, most recklessly and most disastrously. Such marriage laws are based for the most part on the infantile assumption that procreation is absolutely dependent upon the marriage ceremony, an assumption usually coupled with the complementary one that the only purpose of marriage is procreation. Yet it is a fact so obvious that it is hardly worth stating that the most fertile classes who indulge in the most dysgenic type of procreating–the feeble-minded–are almost totally unaffected by marriage laws and marriage ceremonies.

As for the sterilization of criminals not merely must we know much more of heredity and genetics in general, but also acquire more certainty of the justice of our laws and the honesty of their administration before we can make rulings of fitness or unfitness merely upon the basis of a respect for law. On this point the eminent William Bateson writes:

Common Sense in Racial Problems. By W. Bateson, M.A., F.R.S.

"Criminals are often feeble-minded, but as regards those that are not, the fact that a man is for the purposes of Society classed as a criminal tells me little as to his value, still less as to the possible value of his offspring. It is a fault inherent in criminal jurisprudence based on non-biological data that the law must needs taken the nature of the offenses rather than that of the offenders as the basis of classification. A change in the right direction has begun, but the problem is difficult and progress will be very slow. . . .We all know of persons convicted perhaps even habitually, whom the world could ill spare. Therefore I hesitate to proscribe the criminal. Proscription... is a weapon with a very nasty recoil. Might not some with equal cogency proscribe army contractors and their accomplices the newspaper patriots? The crimes of the prison population are petty offences by comparison, and the significance we attach to them is a survival of other days. Felonies may be great events locally, but they do not induce catastrophes. The proclivities of the war-makers are infinitely more dangerous than those of the aberrant beings whom from time to time the law may dub as criminals. Consistent and portentous selfishness, combined with dullness of imagination are probably just as transmissible as want of self-control, though destitute of the amiable qualities not rarely associated with the genetic composition of persons of unstable mind."

In this connection we should note another type of "respectable" criminality noted by Havelock Ellis: " If those persons who raise the cry of 'race suicide' in face of the decline of the birth-rate really had the knowledge and the intelligence to realize the manifold evils which they are invoking they would deserve to be treated as criminals."

Our debt to the science of Eugenics is great in that it directs our attention to the biological nature of humanity. Yet there is too great a tendency among the thinkers of this school to restrict their ideas of sex to its expression as a purely procreative function. Compulsory legislation which would make the attempt inevitably futile to prohibit one of the most benificent and necessary of human expressions, or regulate it into the channels of preconceived philosophies would reduce us to the unpleasant days predicted by the poet when

"Priests in black gowns will be walking their rounds
And binding with briars our joys and desires."

Eugenics is chiefly valuable in its negative aspects. It has been "negative Eugenics" that has studied the histories of such families as the Jukes and the Kallikaks, that has pointed out the network of imbecility and feeble-mindedness that has been sedulously cultivated through all strata of society. On its so-called positive or "constructive" it fails to arouse any permanent interest. "Constructive" Eugenics aims to arouse the enthusiasm or the interest of the majority of people in the welfare of the world fifteen or twenty generations in the future. On its negative side it shows us that we are paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of humans who never should have been born at all–that the wealth of individuals and of states are being diverted from the development and the progress of human expression and civilization.

While it is necessary to point out the importance of "heredity" as a determining factor in human life, it is fatal to elevate it to the position of an absolute. Like environment, the concept of heredity derives its value and its meaning only in so far as it is embodied and made concrete in generations of living organisms. Environment and Heredity are not antagonistic. Our problem is not than of "Nature vs. Nurture", but rather of Nature x Nurture, of heredity multiplied by environment, if we may express it thus. The eugenist who overlooks the importance of environment as a determining factor in human life is as short-sighted as the Socialist who neglects the biological nature of man. We cannot disentangle these two forces, except in theory. To the child in the womb, said Samuel Butler, the mother is " environment." She is of course likewise "Heredity." The age-old discussion of "Nature vs. Nurture" has been threshed out time after time, usually fruitlessly because of a failure to recognize the indivisibility of these biological factors. The opposition or antagonism between them is an artificial and academic one, having no basis in the living organism.

We cannot neglect the factor of social environment. We cannot neglect that of heredity–the importance of being well-born. The Socialist–particularly the Marxian–emphasizes one of these factors and neglects the other. The Eugenist, on the other hand, emphasizes heredity and neglects environment. Eugenics, therefore, due to this inherent limitation, this fragmentary program, remains on its positive side, diffuse, vague, abstract, academic and theoretical. On its practical side, its "negative" side, it must resort to compulsory and restrictive legislation, which, as events prove, is ineffective and ineffectual.

The great principle of Birth Control, it may now be seen, offers the means whereby the individual may adapt himself to and control the forces of environment and heredity. Entirely apart from its Malthusian aspect or that of the population question, Birth Control must be recognized, as the Neo-Malthusians pointed out long ago, not "merely as the key of the social position," and the only possible and practical method of human generation, but as the very pivot of civilization. Birth Control, which has been criticized as negative and destructive, is really the greatest and most truly eugenic method, and its adoption as part of the program of Eugenics would immediately give a concrete and realistic power to that science. As a matter of fact, Birth Control has been accepted by the most clear thinking and far seeing of the Eugenists themselves as the most constructive and necessary of the methods of racial health.

Among these are Dean W. R. Inge, Professor J. Arthur Thomson, Mr. Havelock Ellis, Professor William Bateson, Dr. Killick Millard and . . . .

We are now, I hope, in a position to understand the constructive and creative aspects of the philosophy and practice of Birth Control. It has been condemned as dysgenic, destructive of civilization, as the weapon of selfish unthinking pleasure-seeking, immoral and obscene. But in the following chapters, I hope to show that Birth Control is really an educational power, an ethical necessity in awakening racial responsibility and individual intelligence; that its effect is to arouse interest in children and to intensify their value; that it points to a re-direction of woman's power and energies; that it allies itself with the scientific point of view; and creates a set of values which operates to release new energies for human expression and the advance of a true civilization.

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Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project