I mentioned last week in my initial review of Margaret Sanger’s The Pivot of Civilization that it was a surprising book—both better and worse than I expected. Among her critics, the Planned Parenthood founder has a reputation for being a racist and a libertine. These charges may not be entirely fair. Though Sanger sings the praises of eugenics, she is caged in her comments on race. Sanger continually calls for a general throwing off of sexual restraint, but warns against going too far. In fact, some of her assertions about sex are ones I can’t help but agree with—including the following:
Asceticism defeats its own purpose because it develops the obsession of licentious and obscene thoughts, the victim alternating between temporary victory over "sin" and the remorse of defeat. But the seeker of purely physical pleasure, the libertine or the average sensualist, is no less a pathological case, living as one-sided and unbalanced a life as the ascetic … in trying to get something for nothing, he is not merely cheating others but himself as well…. Sensuality … is on a level with gluttony—a physical excess—detached from sentiment, chivalry, or tenderness…. Its real and effective restraints are those imposed by a loving and sympathetic companionship, by the privileges of parenthood, the exacting claims of career and that civic sense which prompts men to do social service. (Kindle Locations 1928-1932, 1745-1748)
I suppose we can debate whether asceticism can ever be a healthy lifestyle choice, but it’s hard to criticize her condemnation of self-absorbed sexuality—though it seems a complete aberration from her normal flow of thought. Interestingly, Sanger uses variations of the word “sentiment” 25 times in Pivot—most often as “sentimentality”—but the quote above is the only time she gives it a positive connotation. Elsewhere, she complains of “stupid, cruel sentimentalism,” argues that society must “purge itself of sentimentalism,” and praises Thomas Huxley’s skewering of the “debauch[ed] sentimentalism” of the Salvation Army. Referencing my earlier post again, Sanger seems to use the words “sentimentality” and “religion” interchangeably, as evidenced by the following statement:
[N]ot by any sanctimonious debauch of sentimentality or religiosity, may we accomplish the first feeble step toward (human) liberation. On the contrary, only by firmly planting our feet on the solid ground of scientific fact may we even stand erect—may we even rise from the servile stooping posture of the slave, borne down by the weight of age-old oppression. (Kindle Locations 2160-2163)
True to her book’s title, Margaret Sanger believed that “science,” through birth control, was the pivot of civilization—the capital “S,” Savior of humankind. If her remarks on race and sex were less heinous than I expected, her remarks on birth control were far more heinous. I knew Sanger revered birth control; I didn’t realize she bowed down in worship to it. My first post lays out how birth control operated as Sanger’s functional religion. This time, I’d like to focus on the animosity she felt towards that one particular religion that competed most vigorously against her own—namely Christianity. Margaret Sanger knew better than to imagine that the sacrament of birth control could coexist with the sacraments of the historic Christian faith. For the Church of Birth Control to stand, the Church of Christ would have to fall.
With such a view in mind, Margaret Sanger went all the way back to the beginning, so as to redefine original sin. In her alternate narrative, original sin was not a historic act of moral rebellion against God. It was the fallout from uncontrolled reproduction. In her words:
To blame everything upon the capitalist and the environment produced by capitalism is to focus attention upon merely one of the elements of the problem. The Marxian too often forgets that before there was a capitalist there was exercised the unlimited reproductive activity of mankind, which produced the first overcrowding, the first want. (Kindle Locations 1340-1342)
According to Sanger, “the first want” was not personal autonomy. It was not a desire to cast off the moral authority of a Creator God. Rather, it was the simple result of not having enough to eat—which was spurred on by reckless reproduction. By her reckoning, if people only have enough space and enough food, they will never act badly. If only that were the case! Human history—if it tells us anything—tells us time and again that enough is never enough. Even when given near unfettered access to a garden paradise, we’ll clamor for the one piece of fruit that is off limits. That is the mystery and tragedy of original sin. Margaret Sanger made no secret of her contempt for large families, but not even she would criticize the bearing of two children. She had three herself. Surely two children, of the purest racial stock, born into the wealthiest family in the world would never come to blows. And yet they do. Cain kills Abel.
Even if you write off Genesis as mere religious fancy, how many times has the story of Cain and Abel been repeated? How many times have we seen wealth and opulence lead to violence and oppression? Clearly, there is something much deeper in play. Having redefined original sin, Sanger then shifts her attention to virtue. Whereas, the highest and greatest command in the Christian equation is to love God and love your neighbor, Sanger redefines the pinnacle of virtue as follows:
If the morality or immorality of any course of conduct is to be determined by the motives which inspire it, there is evidently at the present day no higher morality than the intelligent practice of Birth Control. (Kindle Locations 1685-1686)
Consider that statement again, “[A]t the present day (there is) no higher morality than the intelligent practice of Birth Control.” In one fell swoop, Sanger implicitly denies the existence of God and redefines the highest human ethic. God and Love are simultaneously replaced by a new deity: Birth Control. The Christian Church, she laments, “[is] organized to exploit the ignorance and the prejudices of the masses, rather than to light their way to self-salvation.” (Kindle Locations 178-179). She continues by stating that “an idealistic code of sexual ethics, imposed from above … can never be of the slightest value.” (Kindle Locations 273-275). “Biblical injunction”—elsewhere defined as “the old traditional morality … is in reality dying out,” she says, “killing itself off because it is too irresponsible and too dangerous to individual and social well-being. (Kindle Locations 832, 1680-1681). This, Sanger declares, is the result of following the Bible's teaching on sin and virtue:
One need only go out on the street of any American city to-day to be confronted with the victims of the cruel morality of self-denial and "sin." This fiendish "morality" is stamped upon those emaciated bodies … denoting the ceaseless vigilance in restraining and suppressing the expression of natural impulses…. Without complete mental freedom, it is impossible to approach any fundamental human problem…. True education cannot tolerate the inculcation of fear. (Kindle Locations 1918-1970, 2044-2045)
With that last statement, Sanger completes her triumvirate assault on the foundation of Christian belief. Original sin has been redefined as material want. The highest virtue has been redefined as the “intelligent” practice of birth control, and the beginning of knowledge has been redefined—not as the fear of the Lord—but as the abrogation of fear itself. If biblical morality is the problem, “complete mental freedom” is Sanger’s solution. Were she to stop here, merely lambasting the Christian doctrine of moral accountability and divine judgment, Margaret Sanger would simply be in league with most of today’s academic elite. But she doesn’t stop there, and this is what really sets her apart.
By and large, those who reject the Christian doctrines of sin and judgment, still publicly admire the Christian virtue of charity. Margaret Sanger hated this virtue above all else. She didn’t just despise Christian belief, she despised its practical outpouring—love for your less-fortunate neighbor. This is what Margaret Sanger had to say about such benevolence:
There is a special type of philanthropy or benevolence, now widely advertised and advocated … which strikes me as being more insidiously injurious than any other. This concerns itself directly with the function of maternity, and aims to supply GRATIS medical and nursing facilities to slum mothers. Such women are to be visited by nurses and to receive instruction in the "hygiene of pregnancy"; to be guided in making arrangements for confinements; to be invited to come to the doctor's clinics for examination and supervision. They are, we are informed, to "receive adequate care during pregnancy, at confinement, and for one month afterward." Thus are mothers and babies to be saved. "Childbearing is to be made safe.”… Such "benevolence" is not merely superficial and near-sighted. It conceals a stupid cruelty, because it is not courageous enough to face unpleasant facts. Aside from the question of the unfitness of many women to become mothers, aside from the very definite deterioration in the human stock that such programs would inevitably hasten, we may question its value even to the normal though unfortunate mother.”… It encourages the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste. Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant.” (Kindle Locations 963-986)
“The most serious charge that can be brought against modern ‘benevolence,’” Sanger wrote, “is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents.” (Kindle Locations 1034-1035) Christian charity, in propping up the survival of the unfit, was a direct assault against the evolutionary principles that guided her life. “My criticism,” Sanger declared, “is not directed at the ‘failure’ of philanthropy, but rather at its success.” (Kindle Locations 923-924) “Charities and philanthropies,” she continued “[have] propped up the defective and degenerate and relieved them of the burdens borne by the healthy sections of the community, thus enabling them more easily and more numerously to propagate their kind.” (Kindle Locations 724-726)
To help someone in need, Sanger believed, was an insulting assertion of personal deity. Better to leave the poor man alone than to insult him with your degrading charity. To insert yourself on his behalf, she maintained, was to elevate yourself and denigrate him. She wrote:
No man can play the Deity to his fellow man with impunity—I mean, spiritual impunity, of course. For see: if I am at all satisfied with that relation, if it contents me to be in a position of generosity towards others, I must be remarkably indifferent at bottom to the gross social inequality which permits that position, and, instead of resenting the enforced humiliation of my fellow man to myself in the interests of humanity, I acquiesce in it for the sake of the profit it yields to my own self-complacency. (Kindle Locations 932-936)
Margaret Sanger had no patience for the notion that it is more blessed to give than to receive. In her equation, any “blessing” received by the benefactor is simply an indictment against the whole unjust system—which was an extremely convenient position for her to hold. As a Socialist, Margaret Sanger decried economic inequality, but as a socialite, she never felt the least injunction to share her wealth with those in need. What a happy dichotomy! Except for the fact that it wasn’t. The tired and cranky woman in the 1957 Mike Wallace interview was a shell of the vibrant birth control apostle that preceded her. Crafting a new religion is one thing. Being able to actually live with its implications is quite another.
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.