Margaret Sanger, mom & sanctity of human life
A low view of the sanctity of human life leads to a worldview in which some people are expendable and have less value. A clear example of this is the life and thought of Margaret Higgins Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Born in 1879, in 1902 she married architect William Sanger, whom she eventually divorced. In 1914 Sanger launched a monthly magazine called The Woman Rebel. The masthead had the slogan, “No Gods and No Masters.” Soon thereafter, Sanger fled to England because she had violated the Comstock laws. While there, she came under the influence of Havelock Ellis (1859 – 1939). Ellis was a very vulgar man who has been rightly described as “the iconoclastic grandfather of the Bohemian sexual revolution.” Later, Sanger married millionaire J. Noah Slee, insisting that her second marriage be an “open marriage” in which she could have other sexual partners.
Highly influenced by Social Darwinism and crude concepts of eugenics, Sanger’s thought can best be described as elitist and racist. In 1922 she published The Pivot of Civilization. The book is a strong call for widespread availability of birth control, but her agenda ran much deeper. Sanger was convinced that poor people were reproducing too rapidly and, thus, ruining the “stock” from which the future race would emerge. She said, “The statistics which show that the greatest number of children are born to parents whose earnings are the lowest, [and] that the direst poverty is associated with uncontrolled fecundity, emphasize the character of the parenthood we are depending upon to create the race of the future.” Sanger was even more concerned that “feeble-minded” people were reproducing too rapidly and passionately argued for government mandated eugenic policies. Though she never defined “feeble-minded,” Sanger obviously meant far more than people who are mentally handicapped, but intended a broad and vague category of undesirable people who should not be allowed to reproduce, a point she made clear when she said, “Are we to check the infant mortality rate among the feeble-minded and aid the unfortunate offspring to grow up, a menace to the civilized community even when not actually certifiable as mentally defective or not obviously imbecile?” Apparently the only standard for her definition of “feeble-minded” was people she found unpleasant. She went so far as to claim that charity towards such people was actually detrimental to society, saying, “Organized charity itself is … the surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.” Lest anyone mistake her intentions, Sanger had already signaled her willingness to eliminate people she deemed unfit in her 1920 book Women and the New Race when she said, “The most merciful thing a large family can do to one of its infant members is to kill it.” Elsewhere in The Pivot of Civilization, she referred to undesirable people and races as “human weeds.”
I had the opportunity to reflect on Sanger’s statements when my mother died this November. My Mom, Cathrine Lewis Branch, was born in 1933 in rural Alabama to an unwed mother. Mom never knew her dad and only learned his name as an adult. Her family was poor and uneducated. My grandmother had an on-again / off-again relationship with a live-in boyfriend, a man my mom just called “Uncle.” Frankly, they were the type of people Margaret Sanger thought should not be allowed to reproduce and my mom would probably have been one of the “human weeds” which Margaret Sanger thought would ruin society.
By God’s grace, my mom was living in Ashland, Ala., after WWII. While Grandmother Lewis did not care much for the things of God and rarely attended church, members of First Baptist Church, Ashland, began to take my mom to church and she received Christ and was baptized at age 13. The church extended to my mom the kind of charity that Margaret Sanger claimed was detrimental to society. Members of First Baptist Ashland encouraged my Mom to sing in church. They asked her teach Sunday School when she was 18, and Mom taught children’s Sunday School for the rest of her life. The church bought Mom a car so she could drive to work. The church paid for my Mom’s wedding and bridal shower since her family could not afford these things. My Mom’s children and grandchildren include a son who teaches at a Baptist seminary, a daughter who teaches math at a community college, a son-in-law who is earning a doctorate, a grandson by marriage who is earning a doctorate, a granddaughter who has earned a master’s degree, a grandson who is a student at Southern Seminary, and another grandson who has worked at a camp for troubled teens.
I strongly urge churches to consider the example of a small church in a small town in Alabama. The strongest antidote to a culture that has a low view of the sanctity of human life is to invest in the lives of the very people who have the least to offer. In contrast to the elitist attitudes of Sanger, we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ dignifies people from morally chaotic families. The Sanctity of Human Life means as Christians we don’t eliminate people, we invest in people. (Alan Branch is vice president for student development at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.)