Don’t let the title confuse you. I am not saying that Sanger was an apologist for the Christian faith. Far from it. But what she and so many others have done is provide an outlet for what I believe is functional evidence for the truth of Christian theology. The scientific empiricist demands verifiable evidence. They want some sort of verifiable proof of Christian truth. Without such evidence they repeat the principle that “God is love” is meaningless because it is may be neither verified nor falsified.
In response to this I would suggest that history has provided us with a working model of God’s providential hand. Human depravity, said Malcom Muggeridge, “is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” In response to that I would suggest that the ethic of Christianity (the Judeo-Christian ethic) provides the best workable solution to the human condition.
We note that the 20th century provided a singular world view, the various varieties of Marxism, which proved itself the most deadly ever. With about 10 billion people having lived during that century, about 100 million were put to death as a result of Marxist thinking. From Mao we get somewhere between an unknown 10 to 30 million. Add Stalin another 20 million. Pol Pot another million. Idi Amin anther million or more. Hitler another 10 million. The numbers keep growing. There are more, so we will just summarize here, that at a very minimum, 1 in every 50 people who even lived on Earth during the 20th century were put to death by the Marxist world view.
Enter Margaret Sanger. This post represents a cursory examination of her thoughts as expressed in the first chapters of “Woman and the New Race.” My purpose here is to examine only her view of the value of life. It is not to examine or review the entire substance of her work. Since the document is available online at no change I will leave that to others for their own purposes.
Sanger’s views of the value of life are expressed through a sequence of arguments. Beginning in chapter one she states a noble end — that motherhood would be a “voluntary, intelligent function.” This type of statement gives a high purpose and value to both the woman and the child. This so at least on the surface. The statement is prefaced with the remark that to accomplish this one must engage in “controlling birth.”
Her prerogative for control revolves around Malthusian initiatives. Her concern for “explosive populations” comes out of Malthus’ concerns about the problems of over-population and the inability of the earth to feed the masses. She thus sees a need to either reduce or stop the expansion of human population. She explores Malthus’ thoughts more in chapter nine.
Sanger’s view of maternity also comes as a mixed package. Again she makes the noble statement that it ought not be merely a “submissive” function as that has contributed to populating the earth with, what she sees as, plentiful, cheap, and ignorant. These people are used for a variety of purposes which are less than noble, and with her we would certainly agree. In this light she views the unenlightened woman as complicit in “the evil she has wrought through her submission,” a situation from which she wishes to free women.
Throughout her discussion is the quest for the self-fulfilled woman as an individual. She says of self and the control of one’s reproductive instincts:
Two chief obstacles hinder the discharge of this tremendous obligation. The first and the lesser is the legal barrier. Dark-Age laws would still deny to her the knowledge of her reproductive nature. Such knowledge is indispensable to intelligent motherhood and she must achieve it, despite absurd statutes and equally absurd moral canons.
The second and more serious barrier is her own ignorance of the extent and effect of her submission. Until she knows the evil her subjection has wrought to herself, to her progeny and to the world at large, she cannot wipe out that evil.
This pretext reflects her concern for the dignity of the individual. This becomes the theme in chapter two as she clarifies her views on the matter. She states that
… the driving force behind woman’s aspiration toward freedom has lain deeper. It has asserted itself among the rich and among the poor, among the intelligent and the unintelligent. It has been manifested in such horrors as infanticide, child abandonment and abortion.
The only term sufficiently comprehensive to define this motive power of woman’s nature is the feminine spirit.
This “spirit” seems apparently strong as it drives women to control reproduction even through infanticide, which she viewed as the equal of abortion.
If infanticide did not spring from a desire within the woman herself, from a desire stronger than motherhood, would it prevail where women enjoy an influence equal to that of men? And does not the fact that the women in question do enjoy such influence, point unmistakably to the motive behind the practice?
With this she provides a new level of moral equivalency. Abortion is the moral equivalent of infanticide. And it appears that both are natural and instinctive, surpassing (or at worst qualifying) maternal instincts.
Her history of infanticide is written to convey its universality and instinctive character. In all of this there is not only no moral outrage at the taking of life but instead an uncritical acceptance of it in all forms. She quotes Westermark regarding sex-selective infanticide in China:
“In the poorest districts of China,” says Westermark, “female infants are often destroyed by their parents immediately after their birth, chiefly on account of poverty. Though disapproved of by educated Chinese, the practice is treated with forbearance or indifference by the man of the people and is acquiesced in by the mandarins.”
One justification he raises for her assertion that infanticide is an instinctive behavior is the failure of laws to end practice.
In China, as in India, the religions of the country condemned, even as they to-day condemn, infanticide. Both foreign and native governments have sought to make an end of the custom. But in both countries it still prevails. Nor are these Eastern countries substantially different from their Western neighbors.
The expression of the apparently instinctive urge to control reproduction is seen as an escape from slavery.
Society, in dealing with the feminine spirit, has its choice of clearly defined alternatives. It can continue to resort to violence in an effort to enslave the elemental urge of womanhood, making of woman a mere instrument of reproduction and punishing her when she revolts.
Chapter three takes the reader into her efforts to further the human race through eugenics. She asks “What material is there for a greater American race?” and answers the question thoroughly. Her points include the general demographic census of the U.S., the low income of migrant workers and new arrivals, their ignorance and superstition, and diseases such as tuberculosis which ravage their class. All of these lead to her progressive sense when she says:
Every detail of this sordid situation means a problem that must be solved before we can even clear the way for a greater race in America. Nor is there any hope of solving any of these problems if we continue to attack them in the usual way.
This is the condition of things for which those stand who demand more and more children. Each child born under such conditions but makes them worse—each child in its own person suffers the consequence of the intensified evils.
These set the stage for several “must” statements which she sees as critical. And so
we must keep the birth rate within the scope of our ability to understand as well as to educate. We must not encourage reproduction beyond our capacity to assimilate our numbers …
We must, therefore, not permit an increase in population that we are not prepared to care for
We must set motherhood free. We must give the foreign and submerged mother knowledge that will enable her to prevent bringing to birth children she does not want.
Her purpose for this is again stated in noble terms
Under such circumstances we can hope that the “melting pot” will refine.
Chapter four comprises her expression about the vulnerability of women in pregnancy. She lists various diseases and conditions and the numbers of women who died on their account. Her sense for the cause of all this is how she sees women of the lower economic classes being treated.
Nor is the full story of the woman’s sufferings yet told. Grievous as is her material condition, her spiritual deprivations are still greater. By the very fact of its existence, mother love demands its expression toward the child. By that same fact, it becomes a necessary factor in the child’s development. The mother of too many children, in a crowded home where want, ill health and antagonism are perpetually created, is deprived of this simplest personal expression. She can give nothing to her child of herself, of her personality. Training is impossible and sympathetic guidance equally so. Instead, such a mother is tired, nervous, irritated and ill-tempered; a determent, often, instead of a help to her children. Motherhood becomes a disaster and childhood a tragedy.
It goes without saying that this woman loses also all opportunity of personal expression outside her home. She has neither a chance to develop social qualities nor to indulge in social pleasures. The feminine element in her—that spirit which blossoms forth now and then in women free from such burdens—cannot assert itself. She can contribute nothing to the wellbeing of the community. She is a breeding machine and a drudge—she is not an asset but a liability to her neighborhood, to her class, to society. She can be nothing as long as she is denied means of limiting her family.
It was her belief that women have not been able to succeed because bearing children limits wealth and comfort as well as removing opportunities for self-fulfillment.
Chapter five expresses her moral outrage at large families. “The most immoral practice of the day is breeding too many children” is a statement too clear to allow for misunderstanding. She follows Malthus’ position that too many children is a cause of poverty, war, prostitution, and other ills. Having too many children makes labor a cheap commodity and thus creates poverty. In addition it is seen as a difficulty which destroys the lives of men just as it does of women, sapping their vitality and energy to enjoy life.
Again, in her noble manner, she does wish for the moral resolution — that women would have “time to cultivate their talents and intellects” to increase their status in society. She states this more fully:
One thing we know—the woman who has escaped the chains of too great reproductivity will never again wear them. The birth rate of the wealthy and upper classes will never appreciably rise. The woman of these classes is free of her most oppressive bonds. Being free, we have a right to expect much of her. We expect her to give still greater expression to her feminine spirit—we expect her to enrich the intellectual, artistic, moral and spiritual life of the world. We expect her to demolish old systems of morals, a degenerate prudery, Dark-Age religious concepts, laws that enslave women by denying them the knowledge of their bodies, and information as to contraceptives. These must go to the scrapheap of vicious, cast-off things. Hers is the power to send them there. Shall we look to her to strike the first blow which shall wrench her sisters from the grip of the dead hand of the past?
Like all who propose a solution to the human condition, Sanger’s material comes with some noble motives about the character and capacity of women. As pro-life apologists we must not belittle these goals or separate them from her work. Yet these goals should not be taken on their own, apart from her methods for resolving the human condition. Sanger committed a grave error in assuming that there is nothing noble about being a child bearer.
Sanger’s views of history are highly questionable. One would assume that the conditions in China would have improved since they regularly practiced infanticide, especially female infanticide. But that was not the case, and is not the case today. It would seem more accurate to say that nations did not change for either better or worse economically and militarily on this account. We just do not know. Later material (ch. 14 and her discussion of the status of women in the Roman empire) shows the same propensity to use history in a similarly convenient fashion. When she can find a point that works she will use it even if the rest of the facts might get in the way.
One thing we might learn from Sanger is that a conservative economic can often be naive and even ignorant about the human condition. It is easy to assume the best of people and their response to need will be harder and more valuable work. But the industrial revolution seems to show an error in conservative thought and exploitation of the Chinese and Irish stood alongside the exploitation of the black population. Equally naive was Sanger’s product. Increased abortion rates have not helped open opportunities for any group.
Those who hold to Sanger’s reasoning would do well to note that many of her arguments fail today because of advancements in medicine. Today’s treatments of tuberculosis and STDs are routine, though non-existent in her era. The same argument holds true for her arguments regarding infant mortality. Such arguments fail in light of medical advancements.
We are often disturbed by the conflation of “birth control” and “abortion” as we associate the former with contraception though not the latter. For Sanger they came as a package. When abortion proponents separate the two we might find strategic value in pointing out both their history and their practice. They do not separate the two except in their rhetoric, and that is deceptive.
Sanger’s goal of adding more value to life is a quantitative one. For her, fewer people are more valuable than more people. Her materialistic view sits opposed to the materialism of the secular exploiter whom she roundly criticized. But both are equally materialistic and would dispose of lives only by differing means. One would use war and heavy labor; the other a scalpel. Neither method has any moral value and the Christian would do well to take neither side in this. There are more than two options.
In the end Sanger expressed an ethic in line with Marx. Women were to be part of the workforce. We all know her abortion legacy and that adds greatly to the numbers presented at the beginning. Marxism has provided nothing but a structure where humans put themselves to death. It is difficult to find anything further from either Christian or evolutionary principles than self-destruction. It is the Christian ethic, and only the Christian ethic, which provides a remedy for this situation. This is one example the empirical meaningfulness of Christian truth. No, we have not proven the existence of God. But what we have shown is that “God” is not a meaningless expression.