We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories.
The fact checkers:
Willoughby Mariano: writer, researcher
Jim Tharpe: editor
Let's dive right in with PolitiFact's explanation of the issue:
"When Margaret Sanger - check my history - started Planned Parenthood, the objective was to put these centers in primarily black communities so they could help kill black babies before they came into the world," Cain said during a talk in Washington, D.C., at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group.Cain went on to talk about today's Planned Parenthood working to fulfill its "original mission," so it's probably fair to infer that Cain is, at minimum, linking the killing of black babies with that original mission.
"It's planned genocide," Cain added. He wants the U.S. Congress to yank funding for Planned Parenthood, which receives about $75 million a year to provide non-abortion health services.
Was Planned Parenthood founded to help kill unborn black babies?
The line about killing black babies prior to birth accounts for my agreement with PolitiFact on one aspect of Cain's claim: The early incarnations of Planned Parenthood didn't do much to push abortion. It was too controversial at the time.
But before we move on, please note that we do not have Cain's comment in its original context. We have PolitiFact relying on a news account of Cain's speech. PolitiFact claims that it "always" tries to work from an original version of a claim to allow consideration of the surrounding context. If it isn't important to consider the surrounding context, then why assure readers that searching out the context is standard practice? And if the original context is important, then shouldn't any fact check lacking the original context make special note of that missing feature?
In Cain's case, the original context is missing, and PolitiFact fails to emphasize the potential significance of missing material.
The ensuing fact check emphasizes that there is no good evidence that black babies were killed and that the evidence that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was personally racist is of the poorest quality.
I'm already on record supporting the former point. But Sanger's personal beliefs are largely irrelevant to the implicit argument that Planned Parenthood has a history of targeting blacks.
The PolitiFact story offered a fleeting glimpse of the elephant in the room:
Eugenics was once a wildly popular theory that the human race can be improved through better breeding and genetics. It drew together backers as diverse as President Theodore Roosevelt and black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois.The question any journalist should have sought to answer after a statement like that is why Sanger welcomed some of the most notorious leaders of the eugenics movement into leadership in her organization.
At its best, the U.S. movement pushed for better prenatal care. At its worst, it enabled forced sterilization laws and let claims that blacks and immigrants were inferior to masquerade as science.
Sanger welcomed some of the movement’s more notorious leaders onto the board of a predecessor to Planned Parenthood.
Dorothy Roberts summed up the relationship well in her essay "Margaret Sanger and the Racial Origins of the Birth Control Movement":
Sanger herself was more directly concerned with the disastrous effects of a Malthusian population bomb. British scholar Thomas Malthus, back in the 19th century, had theorized that exponential population growth led inexorably to an extinction or near-extinction disaster. Sanger bought the idea. But unlike the eugenicists who wanted to explicitly adjust racial demographics, Sanger primarily wanted fewer people generally rather than a smaller number of any particular race or set of races, though it is also true that she believed in the power of eugenics to better the human race as a whole by allowing poor genetic lines to die off.The eugenics movement supported Sanger's birth control clinics as a means of reaching groups whose high fertility rates were thought to threaten the nation's racial stock and culture."Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity," Bruce Baum and Duchess Harris, editors, Duke University Press
By moving the emphasis to Sanger's personal beliefs, PolitiFact ends up presenting a whitewashed version of Planned Parenthood's history and a misleading evaluation of Cain's claim. Cain, after all, claimed nothing about Sanger other than calling her the founder of Planned Parenthood. As a result, aspects of the fact check such as the following miss the point:
But we found no evidence that Sanger advocated - privately or publicly - for anything even resembling the "genocide" of blacks, or that she thought blacks are genetically inferior.Engs at least extends her defense of Sanger to "others," but uselessly bases it on a lack of the desire to "kill black babies," which in turn obscures the varieties of racial motivation found in the ranks of the eugenicists who supported Sanger's birth control initiatives.
Every academic PolitiFact Georgia consulted said that Cain’s claim is wrong.
"I have never run into any serious academic reference of Sanger or others wanting to ‘kill black babies,’" Indiana University professor Ruth Engs, a eugenics movement expert, told PolitiFact Georgia in an e-mail.
Despite pointing out Sanger's association with eugenicists, the PolitiFact Georgia team can scarcely imagine why eugenicists would want birth control for the undesirable population:
Really, calling the Negro Project a genocidal plot defies common sense. Why would Sanger try to destroy a race of people by giving them access to the very thing she thought could make life better?Sanger probably wouldn't, but her eugenicist allies would. Roberts succinctly fills the journalistic hole left by Mariano and Tharpe:
Even if the Negro Project did not intend to exterminate the black population, it facilitated the goals of eugenicists. Eugenicists considered southern blacks to be especially unfit to breed on the basis of a theory of "selective migration," which held that the more intelligent blacks tended to migrate to the North, leaving the less intelligent ones behind.Roberts goes on to note that North and South Carolina instituted state-run birth control initiatives while the use of contraceptives remained unlawful in enlightened Massachusetts.
Sanger's view that fecundity resulted in poverty and thus lack of reproductive fitness was not a popular view among eugenicists. The overtly racist eugenicists could see a benefit to giving contraceptives to an undesirable class of persons. And the non-racist eugenicists most likely to ally with Sanger likewise saw a good result in limiting the population of the unfit:
As with the lending practice of redlining, preventing the births of black children to a greater degree than preventing the births of others is not necessarily a racist practice. And if Cain erred by referring to killing black babies, he was at least correct that Planned Parenthood's roots contain a concerted effort to reduce procreation by blacks, especially in the South.These close allies of birth control held more rigidly deterministic views than Sanger did. As Kevles notes, what distinguished these men from other social reformers was their firm belief that biology mattered. In disparaging the racial prejudice of mainstream eugenics, they did not dispute its goals, only its methods.Carole R. McCann, "Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945"
Presumably the media experts at PolitiFact have no real knowledge of this, so we can't be surprised at the conclusion:
Cain’s claim is a ridiculous, cynical play of the race card. We rate it Pants on Fire.Cain's claim was only ridiculous to the extent it is restricted to the method of limiting the reproduction of blacks. The PolitiFact team exhibits difficulty in restricting its evaluation to that point and provides a distorted picture in the end.
And it's worth noting that calling Cain's claim a "cynical play of the race card" is a outright editorial judgment, rather than a check of the facts.
Willoughby Mariano: F
Jim Tharpe: F
If the original context is important then treat it that way. Otherwise, revise the descriptions of PolitiFact's process.
It seems that fact checkers had a pair of facts they wanted to check ("Was Margaret Sanger a racist?" "Did Planned Parenthood kill
This fact check provides yet another example of PolitiFact's practical immunity from the standards it applies to others. PolitiFact's "burden of proof" criterion allows PolitiFact to rule a statement "False" if the claimant fails to substantiate his claim. Yet we're supposed to trust PolitiFact's ruling despite the apparent lack of a complete record of Cain's statement.
As well, one could note the lack of a strictly objective criterion for ridiculousness that would allow PolitiFact to distinguish between "False" and "Pants on Fire."