May 06, 2008

Should pro-lifers keep citing Margaret Sanger’s scathingly racist statements, and her program of eugenics”€”which directly influenced Hitler, and led to laws in a dozen or so American states forcibly sterilizing or even castrating thousands of the “€œunfit”€ who flunked primitive I.Q. tests? Good question.

What matters most is whether such a rhetorical attack works at undermining liberal and non-white support for abortion. In my own long experience in the pro-life movement, it is occasionally useful, but rarely conclusive. It helps sow doubt about the motives of one’s opponents, and might tilt the occasional lefty towards becoming more ambivalent about abortion and population control, but I”€™ve never seen it change anyone’s mind”€”any more than someone who is solidly pro-life would change his convictions if he came to believe in Freaknomics”€™ spurious claim that abortion helps cut crime.

Marcus Epstein raises an interesting question when he asks if harping on Sanger’s racism does harm in other areas. Does it feed into what we might call the Left’s “€œanti-Southern Strategy,”€ which entails hunting down and denouncing every trace even of group identification among European Americans, while coddling and profiting from outright racism and bigotry among every other ethnicity?

Well, maybe. But that’s not the real problem with tarring today’s Planned Parenthood with its founder’s ethnic obsessions. Instead, it this: Attacking an organization that kills tens of thousands of children every year because it might, just might, be a little racist is simply a joke. And in very poor taste”€”like denouncing Hitler for destroying German typography. As I”€™ve written elsewhere, compared to legal abortion, the whole of Jim Crow was a fart in a bathtub. Even slavery paled. We need to make this point over and over again”€”and not to undermine it by our own tactics.

Marcus cites Sanger’s own disingenuous statements opposing abortion”€”made back when the word itself was a profanity. Should we believe her? The organization she founded started promoting and performing abortions just a few years after her death”€”and was presided over by her grandson, Alexander, whom I”€™ve cheerfully heckled in Manhattan. Should we believe that the group run by her friends and appointees betrayed her deep respect for unborn life, and turned 180 degrees promptly after her death? It seems implausible. Had the Jesuits immediately after Ignatius”€™ death become Anglicans en masse, we might be justified in suspecting the work of their founder. To ratchet things up a bit: Had the 12 Apostles, three years after Pentecost, joined the cult of Dionysios, along with all their followers, what inference might we draw? Anyone who has ever worked in practical politics knows that there are stances you take publicly, and those you hold privately”€”waiting for the debate to shift far enough in your direction, so you can take down the “€œhard stuff”€ from the top shelf. Gay rights activists weren”€™t asking for marriage licenses 30 years ago; their supporters would angrily deny such implications. This just meant the public wasn”€™t “€œready”€ for this proposal, which would come with time.

Based on everything I”€™ve read (a lot) about Sanger’s life and works, this sounds to me like what underlay her “€œpro-life”€ stance. Had her belief been sincere, surely at least one of her close associates in Planned Parenthood would have resigned, or made a stink, or something, when the group went into the profitable business of abortion. Instead, not a peep.

But there’s only a limited usefulness in focusing on Sanger’s racist positions. Not because a host of other Americans held onto crackpot eugenicist theories in her day. Indeed, she was one of the main figures helping to spread such ideas. Far from a passive recipient of a tainted cultural commonplace, Sanger crusaded to inform American WASPs of the “€œgenetic threat”€ posed by Southern Europeans, Jews, blacks, and other races.

No, the problem is that most people realize that racial eugenics aren”€™t really at the heart of what Planned Parenthood does today”€”whatever grim racial anxieties might stir in the souls of Botoxed Republican hags who write that organization checks. As Robert G. Marshall and Charles A. Donovan document in their definitive history of the birth control movement, Blessed Are the Barren, Sanger began as a sexual radical and libertine, a close associate of early sexologist Havelock Ellis. A wife who abandoned her husband and young children to travel Europe and conduct a series of casual affairs, Sanger was an apostle of “€œfree love”€ before the term was even invented. Her philosophical inspiration was not Houston Stuart Chamberlain, but the Marquis de Sade.

Sanger had campaigned for sexual license for years before she discovered the handy “€œwedge”€ issue of Anglo anxiety over immigration and differential birth rates. A savvy political activist, she trumped up a minor panic over “€œdysgenic”€ births and “€œhereditary”€ criminality in order to break down the social taboo against even discussing birth control which prevailed among most Protestants before the Anglican Council of Lambeth broke the dam, and offered the first tentative approval of contraception in the history of Christendom. As Blessed Are the Barren shows in exhausting detail, Sanger used the tribal fear of displacement on the part of Protestant elites to undermine their theological position”€”which they”€™d inherited from Luther and Calvin, and Augustine long before them. Odd as it sounds today, Sanger used racism to make birth control respectable.  Of course, given the numbers of men like my grandfather who were arriving every day, Anglo Protestants had good reason to fear displacement. Instead of anti-human measures like sterilization, they should have looked to immigration control—and so Congress did, in 1926. Americans had (and have) a perfect right to enact such laws if they choose, on whatever grounds seem prudent to them. The fear of being displaced by alien cultures is plenty good reason to tighten up the border—but not to sterilize human beings like cattle. Equating such measures (as Sanger did, and the modern Left does) is nonsense on stilts.

And Sanger abandoned the race issue pretty readily, too. As the Nazi crimes against humanity were exposed after World War II, Sanger dropped her Klan hood like last year’s hat, and donned the white coat of a futurist; she “€œdiscovered”€ that the reason why birth control was so urgently important was not the swelling ranks of dusky Sicilians and blacks, but rather the “€œpopulation explosion.”€ Without missing a beat, her organization shifted its rhetoric, and provoked another panic”€”one which ironically enough, has helped contracept the white race to the brink of extinction. Experts like Paul Erhlich appeared on Johnny Carson predicting mass famines throughout the 1970s, and the collapse of civilization. Their warnings never came true”€”but what did it matter? The “€œmeme”€ had taken root, and pushed forward Planned Parenthood’s agenda; indeed, it was the Rockefeller Commission’s infamous report on population that helped sway Justice Blackmun to change his position on abortion, and write the decision in Roe v. Wade.

All of this is not to say that there is no limit to human population, or that no response was necessary to the happy collapse in infant mortality that marked the late 19th century. (My grandmother was an exception—bearing 12 kids, of whom only 5 lived to adulthood. But that was the norm before the late 19th century.) Ironically, the Catholic Church moved to accommodate this reality by the mid-20th century, approving the use of a method of family planning that worked with (instead of against) the Natural Law, and relied on occasional self-denial rather than hormones and surgery. Doctrine often develops in response to heresies; we wouldn”€™t have the Nicene Creed without the Arians who denied the divinity of Christ. What is more, the Church moved much more quickly to offer a sane response to this new development than she had on previous issues, such as usury. Sadly, too few Christians bother to think about the moral implications of technologically interfering with fertility”€”and in doing so, they align themselves with the likes of Sanger against the Fathers (and Reformers) of their own churches.

The fact is that Sanger and her followers cynically exploited racial anxieties for almost 30 years to promote their agenda of sexual liberation”€”before changing tactics. If we can cite those old disgraceful pamphlets to teach our contemporaries not to trust this organization, I don”€™t see why we shouldn”€™t. But we ought not to expect too much.

There’s a deeper issue buried beneath all the filth of racism, lies and promiscuity in which Planned Parenthood sank its roots, and it is this: The old Whig vision of an America which could do without Faith or even the virtues was never more than a fantasy. The “€œinvisible hand”€ of the free market can help generate wealth, but it does not produce “€œspontaneous order”€ in society; in fact, without the constraints of deep religious piety and common cultural codes, competitors in the market economy resemble less the Bees of Mandeville’s fable than the termites that eat away the load-bearing walls of your house. When Western elites began to apply the implications of their own individualist ideology to matters of the heart, the result was the near-total collapse of the family. As the decadence that infected coteries like Margaret Sanger’s and Alfred Kinsey’s filtered down into the middle classes, and then into the poor, the results should have been predictable.

By the middle 1960s (see Moynihan’s report on the black family) reality began to kick down the door. Urban pathologies, funded and made possible by a judgment-free welfare state, began to make the best American cities unliveable. In embracing attitudes toward sex that erode any self-restraint and demean the sanctity of marriage, Western elites had unleashed social problems that would haunt their grand-children”€”an epidemic of illegitimacy and a massive dependent underclass that bred habitual criminals, and among middle class people shattered families that bred children afraid of commitment, who in turn would fail to reproduce themselves.

The blithe rejection at once of biology and morality that underlay Sanger’s call for “€œliberation”€ of “€œthe sex instinct”€ was incompatible with a free society. I think that on some level she knew this”€”which is why she was more than willing to use the coercive power of the State to neuter, control, and selectively breed the unruly poor. All this was in service of her squalid, upper-middle class dream”€”which was dramatized best by the dreary, wife-swapping couples of Ang Lee’s brilliant, miserable The Ice Storm. Some libertarians profess puzzlement that prosperous leftists support at once social libertinism and a pervasive bureaucratic, Nanny State”€”seeing here philosophical inconsistency. Maybe so. But existentially, a state without the private virtues can only survive through the continual growth of an all-knowing, all-seeing State. And that’s the key to Margaret Sanger’s venereal creed.


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