Rethinking Margaret Sanger, Contraception, & How We are All a Moral “Mixed Bag”

In a beautiful and challenging 2012 article on sacrificial giving for Whole Living, Catherine Newman referred several times to philosopher Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save, and its core idea: Those of us who have enough and more than enough are obligated to give from our abundance to the millions of people who live in extreme poverty worldwide. For example, Newman wrote:

“Even in the worst of times,” Singer writes, putting the sucking economy in perspective, “our lives remain infinitely better than those of people living in extreme poverty.” And therein lies the painful equation.

Do I need tidier shoe storage more than someone else needs a place to live? Do my kids need new stainless-steel lunchboxes more than somebody else’s children need to not starve to death? What if my own children were the ones who needed help? It is painful to imagine, I know—but then it might just be inhuman not to.

Although she writes from a nonreligious perspective (while also reminding readers that “at its heart, every religion is about serving the poor, of course—whether it’s the Muslim practice of zakat, Christian tithing, or Buddhist compassion”), Newman’s writing always speaks to my values, desires, and experience. So I was taken aback by her obvious admiration for Peter Singer. I am most familiar with Singer’s other work, around disability, which is not quite so compassionate.

In her essay Unspeakable Conversations, the late disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson introduces Peter Singer like this:

It is a chilly Monday in late March, just less than a year ago. I am at Princeton University. My host is Prof. Peter Singer, often called—and not just by his book publicist—the most influential philosopher of our time. He is the man who wants me dead. No, that’s not at all fair. He wants to legalize the killing of certain babies who might come to be like me if allowed to live. He also says he believes that it should be lawful under some circumstances to kill, at any age, individuals with cognitive impairments so severe that he doesn’t consider them ”persons.” What does it take to be a person? Awareness of your own existence in time. The capacity to harbor preferences as to the future, including the preference for continuing to live.

At this stage of my life, he says, I am a person. However, as an infant, I wasn’t. I, like all humans, was born without self-awareness. And eventually, assuming my brain finally gets so fried that I fall into that wonderland where self and other and present and past and future blur into one boundless, formless all or nothing, then I’ll lose my personhood and therefore my right to life. Then, he says, my family and doctors might put me out of my misery, or out of my bliss or oblivion, and no one count it murder.

I struggled to reconcile this Peter Singer, with his chilling arguments about the right to kill people—babies even—who don’t meet his definition of “person,” with that Singer, who says we who have plenty should share with those who have too little. I asked Newman, in a comment on her blog, if she knew of Singer’s other side. She did know, she told me, and it troubled her. She said, among other things, “I think he’s a mixed bag.”

A mixed bag. We are all a mixed bag. This is Theology 101, a most essential bit of Christian doctrine: We are all deeply flawed—“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3;23). And no matter what our flaws are, God’s grace is sufficient.

I thought of all of this—Singer’s very obvious, perplexing, and troubling “mixed bag,” how all of us have our own perplexing, troubling mix of very bad and very good and lots of in between, and how God offers grace to all of us mixed bags—as I watched my friend and colleague Rachel Stone’s words being misconstrued, twisted, and blasted by fellow Christians yesterday.

In a post for Amy Julia Becker’s blog at Christianity Today, Rachel wrote:

On my first tour of Zomba Central Hospital in Malawi, Africa, where I lived from 2012-2014, an older nurse-midwife, Lena, told me proudly that she had visited the city of my birth, New York, to study at the Margaret Sanger Center in Lower Manhattan.

“A great woman, Margaret Sanger!” Lena said.

I wasn’t sure how to reply; Sanger founded Planned Parenthood, which, contrary to what Sanger would have wished, is today the largest provider of abortions in the United States. As it happens, Planned Parenthood did not, in Sanger’s day, provide abortions. Sanger herself opposed abortion, saying that “no matter how early it was performed it was taking a life.” But Sanger, like many medical professionals in her day, did hold eugenicist ideas. Eugenics were enshrined into compulsory sterilization laws in many U.S. states and supported by organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I do not mean to excuse Sanger for holding these views, but I do want to give the charge of “eugenicist” a more complete background.

It occurred to me that Lena’s world was much closer to Sanger’s than mine. Here, women were likely to bear many more children than they wished to and many times more likely to die from complications of childbearing than women in America. A hundred or so years ago, my great-great-grandmothers struggled to feed their families on the meager wages they earned as immigrants in New York City. Like many women in Malawi, they greeted pregnancy with fear and dread—not because they didn’t love children, but because they feared they wouldn’t be able to feed them all, or keep working to support the children they already had.

Rachel went on to paint a compelling picture of the dire health consequences—for women, children, and families—of unlimited childbearing, and cited solid data to argue that if all women who want it have access to effective contraception that they (rather than their partners) control, millions of vulnerable lives would be saved.

That main point, though, about how and why contraception saves lives, was quickly overwhelmed by tweeters and commenters and bloggers condemning Rachel for defending Margaret Sanger’s eugenicist and racist views—an accusation both without merit and providing a sadly effective distraction from an important conversation for evangelical Christians who are suspicious of contraception, but so ready to villainize Sanger and the organization she founded, Planned Parenthood, that they miss out on opportunities to actually discuss the pros, cons, and real world effects of contraception.

One of the odder accusations leveled at Rachel’s piece by detractors was that, by choosing to include Sanger’s complicated history, Rachel prevented audiences from engaging with her valid and important coverage of how contraception clearly saves lives and improves public health.

“Darn you, Rachel,” several commenters lamented, “for distracting us from your excellent main point,” as they penned long comments or blog posts focused solely on—you guessed it—the distraction rather than the excellent main point. If you overlook substantive writing and a compelling argument to instead fuel a controversy concerning one aspect of that argument, don’t blame that on a writer whose central point (that woman-controlled contraception saves lives) was clear to anyone who didn’t approach her post with a preconceived notion that Sanger was nothing other than a eugenicist and racist.

Furthermore, Rachel did not dismiss Sanger’s eugenic leanings as mere “peccadilloes,” as Alan Jacobs wrote. She did—to the extent possible in a short blog post format—suggest that we consider Sanger’s eugenicist views in the context of early 20th century history. Eugenicist beliefs were widely held in the first decades of the 20th century, codified into state sterilization laws and federal immigrant policy, and preached from many a prominent pulpit. (Amy Laura Hall portrays the chilling complicity of Protestant clergymen in eugenic thinking in her fascinating book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction. Hall’s book convinced me that there are troubling eugenic overtones—although for reasons I’ll go into in another post some time, I’m not sure the word “eugenic” is a helpful one for today’s conversations—not only in modern technological reproduction, but in powerful cultural pressures on parents to produce “successful” children in whatever ways we can.)

Jacobs and others also quoted some of the more incendiary language attributed to Sanger, which is, in some cases, either taken out of context  or misattributed to her. Nonetheless, that Sanger held views about genetics and race that we find unacceptable, even abhorrent, today is clear. That she did so in a culture that widely supported such beliefs doesn’t excuse them. But it does suggest that if we choose to dismiss the good work of anyone who held eugenic views in this time period, as so many seemed to dismiss Sanger’s lifesaving passion for contraception, we’ll be dismissing a whole lot of people. And before we prove Godwin’s law, as an exhausting number of commenters to Rachel’s post did, I suggest that we—in recognition of all those biblical logs and planks—consider Sanger’s “mixed baggedness” alongside our own, rather than alongside the genocidal crimes of a handful of sociopathic totalitarian dictators.

I’ll admit that, for a while yesterday, as I watched the comment section and Twitter fill with vitriol and outrage, I wondered if Jacobs and other commentators were right. Maybe Rachel should have avoided bringing up Sanger, if only to protect herself from all this nastiness. I’ve read enough evangelical rants about contraception, however, to believe that even if Rachel had left Sanger out of her post, others would have brought her and her evil spawn, Planned Parenthood, into the conversation. I am sympathetic to some evangelical arguments concerning abortion and contraception. I am not sympathetic to how Planned Parenthood is demonized in some of these arguments, in part because I have friends—Christians even!—who work for the organization because they care passionately about public health.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought Rachel was right to include Sanger in the post. What, after all, was the primary way Rachel made Sanger relevant to her larger point? She opened the post by comparing Sanger’s experiences with women whose lives were at risk because they had no access to reliable contraception to the similar experiences of a modern-day nurse in Malawi. She quoted the nurse’s admiration for Sanger. For many evangelicals, seeing the terrible Ms. Sanger praised was, no doubt, strange and uncomfortable. But we don’t have to agree with the nurse’s assessment to be moved by it, or to give our attention to the circumstances—grave health threats to women and children—that led to it. Having our assumptions questioned and our perspective challenged is what good writing does, and that’s what Rachel did by asking us to see Sanger not through our jaded eyes, but through the eyes of a nurse who still inhabits a world where women and children die because they lack access to contraception.

Those commenters and bloggers so eager to point out Rachel’s perceived missteps in the name of their dearly held values? They’re a mixed bag too. Thinking of their, and Sanger’s, and Peter Singer’s, and Rachel’s, and my own stark “mixed baggedness”—our ability to be both petty and generous, small-minded and compassionate, blinded by prejudice and engaged with the suffering world with eyes and arms wide open—I thought of Anthony Doerr’s best-selling novel All the Light We Cannot See. [Spoilers ahead]

Doerr’s novel centers on two teenagers caught up in World War II, including young Werner, who uses his genius with electronics and radios on behalf of the Nazi regime. Throughout the novel, Werner faces moments of moral decision—whether or not to join in with the required beating of a prisoner, for example, or speak out in support of a beleaguered friend. His courage fails him every time, until the novel’s climax, when he finally makes a courageous moral choice that saves the life of the novel’s other central character. Werner thinks of his younger sister, who always had a clearer sense of her moral duty than he did, and gains a measure of peace, even as he is imprisoned in an American POW camp, because he has finally done something worthy of his sister’s pride in him. One of the novel’s central questions is how to judge a person’s life story when he has chosen to do both wrong and right. Werner’s final acts of courage don’t erase his previous failures, but they do influence how we perceive the larger arc of his life. His story forces us to consider how our own lives are marked by both moral shame and moral triumph.

As Amy Julia wrote in response to the kerfuffle over Rachel’s post, blog readers ended up, “having a conversation about Margaret Sanger that was supposed to be a conversation about whether or not providing contraception to women in developing nations could indeed save lives.” Many readers, including Rachel’s detractors, regret that it turned out that way. But I don’t think it’s fair to lay the blame on the writer for an audience’s distraction and single-minded focus on a point that was significant but not ultimate. A fair-minded reader should see that a complete revaluation of Sanger’s “mixed bag” history was neither intended nor central to Rachel’s post. In their eagerness to dismiss Sanger’s admittedly complicated yet influential compassion for women and children outright, many in the audience seemed unwilling to recognize that every human being’s “mixed baggedness” is both a fundamental tenet of our faith and cause for extra measures of grace to all.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.