Margaret Sanger was (half) wrong.
If you just thought, “Who’s Margaret Sanger?”, you’re in good company. I only recently learned of the woman; before that, hers was one of those names that is vaguely recognizable but completely unaffiliated with any other thought in one’s mind.
Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood. She is widely considered by the pro-life crowd to be the evil woman from whom our nation adopted its affinity for abortions. Ms. Sanger, according to many, was a racist, a proponent of eugenics, and a spokeswoman for widespread abortions.
The problem with these claims is not that they are completely false, but that they are employed as axioms by conservatives in the battle against abortion. As one completely opposed to abortion (in all cases), I simply must protest my fellow pro-lifers’ error: half-truths hurt our cause and weaken our case. So allow me to set the record straight, and then suggest how we might refine our vision.
Margaret Sanger was a racist. This has been more or less established. Of course, in the early twentieth century, almost everyone was racist. This doesn’t excuse her attitude, it simply neuters the claim “Margaret Sanger was a racist.” It’s accurate, but impotent.
Margaret Sanger supported eugenics. This is somewhat true, with qualifications. Ms. Sanger, being a pragmatic secularist, thought scientifically about human reproduction. In fact, she often referred to it as “breeding.” And just as a farmer or rancher doesn’t allow the weak to re-insert themselves into the gene pool, Ms. Sanger believed that it would benefit the human race to prevent the genetically weak from “breeding.” This is the cold, scientific calculative mindset that results from evolutionary biology and secularism; yet as a self-contained system, it is logically coherent. And in spite of the obvious flaws in her thinking, Ms. Sanger still did not advocate a Hitler-styled eugenics where the “weak” are enslaved and utilized for their labor skills until they are killed or die.
Margaret Sanger was a proponent of abortions. This claim is very false, and it requires a little biographical information on Ms. Sanger in order to be corrected. Margaret Higgins Sanger was born in 1879 to a mother who experienced 18 pregnancies in 22 years, and who died at age 45. This and other experiences directed Margaret’s interest toward the idea of alleviating suffering for the poor, who frequently had so many children that their health was wasted and their poverty was deepened.
Much of her subsequent activism centered around providing contraception (which was illegal in the U.S. until 1965, a year before her death) and education about sexuality to the public – and more specifically, to the poor. She founded Planned Parenthood and other organizations for the purpose of educating women about their bodies and providing contraceptives for them to use in regulating the size of their families.
However, Ms. Sanger was opposed to abortions, calling them “a disgrace to civilization.” Being a proponent of women’s rights, one of the main reasons for her opposition to abortion was the frequent damage it inflicted upon the woman. But, in her 1938 autobiography, she condemned abortion as a practice which ends human life, writing, “[In 1916] we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way – it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.” Margaret Sanger – the founder of Planned Parenthood – called abortion “taking life.”
This is a message the pro-life movement desperately needs to snatch up: the founder of Planned Parenthood was opposed to abortions! It undermines the entire foundation of the abortion movement.
Yet, the movement does take after Ms. Sanger in that it has a propensity towards being wrong. For Margaret Sanger, contraceptives were the answer to many of society’s ills – they were even the answer to abortion! In her book, Family Limitation, she wrote, “[abortions] will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception. This is the only cure for abortions.” In Woman and the New Race, she asked, “Does anyone imagine that a woman would submit to abortion if not denied the knowledge of scientific, effective contraceptives?” The implication is: if contraceptives were only made available to the public, abortions would disappear.
But contraceptives are available to the public – widely available! Only need only take a trip to the local grocer – or gas station restroom – to find all manner of contraceptive options available for purchase. There are plenty of places where one can even find contraceptives free of charge! And yet abortion rates remain staggeringly high.
Margaret Sanger was wrong.
Contraceptives aren’t the solution to society’s ills. They aren’t the solution to abortion. They aren’t even the solution to unintended pregnancies. They aren’t the solution, because sex without contraceptives (I hate the term “unprotected sex” – it treats a baby as something from which people need protection) isn’t the problem.
The problem is multifaceted, but at its root is something to which the scriptures continually testify: man is broken. This means men and women do things that manifest their brokenness – in this case, they have sex outside of marriage. This is not an unforgivable sin, but just like any action, it carries consequences. Some of those consequences need their diaper changed.
The second part of the problem lies in the ignorance that swirls around the majority of sexual encounters – even those within marriage. A woman’s reproductive cycle is purposeful, awe-inspiring, and generally predictable. Those are not words generally used to describe the process, but they apply nonetheless. If couples would choose to simply educate themselves about the intricacies of the reproductive cycle, they would find their need for contraception would diminish or perhaps disappear altogether. Catholic-approved approaches, such as the Billings Method, the Rhythm Method, and the Standard Days Method, all employ an understanding of the woman’s body in the attempt to plan a family, and they don’t necessarily require the use of contraceptives. As an added bonus, the husband and wife are both more knowledgeable about her body, allowing both to actively participate in family planning, and providing space for a sense of awe at God’s miraculous design.
Finally, I have begun to wonder if our whole perspective towards procreation is not warped. While I understand – from firsthand experience – the various factors that make timing a significant consideration in pregnancy and family planning, I also question whether such a consideration reinforces an attitude that is all-too-prevalent in our culture: pregnancy, and babies, and children, are an inconvenience. And perhaps they are – with our fast-paced age, it’s a wonder any of us want children at all. And with the expense of hospital-births, things like insurance coverage and financial stability seem like important considerations.
But mustn’t there be something wrong with a system that causes us to think this way about children? And is there any way of escaping it? We may, perhaps, look to those with large families and ask the conventional questions: “How did you feed all those mouths?” “Don’t you go crazy with all those kids around?” “Why did you decide to have so many kids?” But the real solution lies in an inward examination – that in which we ask the difficult questions of our own soul.
“Are my life plans and activities more important than raising children?”
“As one who bears the image of God, do I find myself eager or reluctant to give birth to more of God’s image-bearers?”
“Do I find myself wishing for ‘consequence-free sex’? Have I separated sex from the possibility of procreation? If so, was I right to do that?”
“Is the cost of having children greater than the cost of not having children?”
“Do I believe Psalm 127:4-5? ‘Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!'”
In asking these questions, we address the issues that Margaret Sanger could never touch – the issues about which she was, sadly, ignorant. We address the root of the suffering she hoped to alleviate – our own broken (but being healed!) selves.
What, then, is “the problem with latex?” It can effectively prevent pregnancies. But latex can never heal a soul.