The birth control for which Margaret Sanger so passionately fought has led not to freedom, but to slavery of the worst kind, for both men and women. Of this, we as a nation should be very afraid.
Margaret Sanger, the great champion of sexual liberalism, is about as modern as they come in many ways, so much so that a few of her political statements bear a startling affinity to certain celebrity statements surrounding this past election. When John F. Kennedy was running for President, the virulently anti-Catholic Sanger vowed she would leave the country if he were elected. After the election, in a Lady Gaga-esque about-face, she acknowledged that she had heard that the President and First Lady were “sympathetic and understanding toward the problem of world population. I will wait out the first year of Senator Kennedy’s Administration and see what happens.”
In his narrative of the scientific quest for the oral contraceptive, entitled The Birth of the Pill, former Wall Street Journal writer Jonathan Eig admits that “Neither [Sanger] nor anyone else could have imagined how birth control would… contribute to the spread of divorce, infidelity, single parenthood, abortion, and pornography.” Nonetheless, he romanticizes, the pill “set men and women free for generations to make love” wherever and whenever they pleased, “in all the places where men wooed women or women wooed men, a spark was struck, and inhibition surrendered to desire.”
The word that Mr. Eig uses in this description—“free”—is one that Sanger herself uses in almost every paragraph she writes, and one that the early twentieth-century birth-control movement relied on heavily, and that still pops up in practically every modern-day discussion of access to contraception. The word “free” appears regularly with the words “liberty” and “equality,” and is juxtaposed to the word “slavery.”
But they are used incorrectly, and toward a wrong end. For the birth control for which Sanger so passionately fought has led not to freedom, but to slavery of the worst kind.
In the second chapter of her 1920 Woman and the New Race, entitled “Woman’s Struggle for Freedom,” Sanger outlines a brief theory of history, identifying “great driving forces” behind the movements of civilizations—customs, traditions, wars, social unrest. The great “driving force” behind what Sanger terms “woman’s struggle for emancipation” is what she calls “the feminine spirit.” And what is this feminine spirit? It’s a slippery concept, loosely defined, but Sanger says this about it: “Woman’s desire for freedom is born of the feminine spirit, which is the absolute, elemental, inner urge of womanhood. It is the strongest force in her nature; it cannot be destroyed; it can merely be diverted from its natural expression into violent and destructive channels…. Driven by the irresistible force within them, they will always seek wider freedom and greater self-development, regardless of the cost.”
This inner urge for wider freedom, however, is juxtaposed to woman’s mere physicality. The “cost” that Sanger spends some pages elucidating in this chapter is that of the life of children. Since the earliest of times, she argues, women have been driven by this feminine spirit to regulate their reproduction by any and all means possible, including inhibiting conception, aborting, and even infanticide. This is how serious “the feminine spirit” is in its “quest for freedom.”
The enemy of “the feminine spirit” is what Sanger calls “unwilling motherhood.” In chapter 7 of Woman and the New Race, she writes that woman is enslaved “first and foremost to her own body.” It is knowledge of her own body and its processes, control over her physical being, that will set her free, that will unleash the feminine spirit.
Few have noted it, but Sanger’s argument bears some striking parallels to the second-century heresy of Gnosticism, a heresy which of course took many forms over many centuries, but which traces its roots to the belief that through knowledge, or gnosis, man can overcome evil and attain salvation. The Gnostics were alternately strict ascetics who hated the flesh, because this earth and all in it were believed to be an emanation of a malign deity; or, they were libertines. But as John T. Noonan, Jr. writes in his history of the Catholic treatment of contraception, “in all this variety of doctrine there was one significant common theme. Virtually without exception, the Gnostics challenged marriage as a child-related institution.” With a common understanding of the physical body as something to be broken away from, to acquire power over via gnosis, there really was no other conclusion to the question of children: The Gnostics didn’t want them.
There is one other definition of “Gnosticism” that proves useful in examining the works of Margaret Sanger, and that is the definition of Eric Voegelin. For Voegelin, modern “Gnosticism” is a heresy encompassing a variety of philosophies and political systems, including Marxism, socialism, and anarchism, among others. It is, broadly, the belief in the progress of man and the perfectibility of life here on earth by human means or systems. In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin writes:
Gnostic speculation overcame the uncertainty of faith by receding from transcendence and endowing man and his intramundane range of action with the meaning of eschatological fulfillment. In the measure in which this immanentization progressed experientially, civilizational activity became a mystical work of self-salvation. The spiritual strength of the soul which in Christianity was devoted to the sanctification of life could now be diverted into the more appealing, more tangible, and, above all, so much easier creation of the terrestrial paradise. Civilizational action became a divertissement, in the sense of Pascal, but a divertissement which demonically absorbed into itself the eternal destiny of man and substitute for the life of the spirit.
So then, we have two operating definitions of Gnosticism. First, the second-century heresy that espoused that salvation was achieved by overcoming the material by means of knowledge. And second, the modern heresy, which preaches establishing a heaven on earth through the gradual progress of humankind and the eradication of evil, particularly social ills.
Margaret Sanger’s work fits perfectly into this paradigm.
First, there is her imperative of liberating the spirit by conquering the body. The body, with its vast reproductive powers, enslaves. It is knowledge of how the body, and specifically its reproduction, works that frees women. The question then arises: Women are now free, but to what end? What are they supposed to do with all this freedom? This is where Voegelin’s conception of modern Gnosticism and its unflinching belief in progress comes into play. Once woman has been “liberated,” Sanger writes,
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.
Once liberated, woman is “free” to create Sanger’s “New Race.” (Sanger was, it should be noted, an ardent population-control zealot and eugenicist.) Children would be “fitter” because born to enlightened women who wanted them and could provide for them. Once birth control had succeeded in weeding out the unfit—the poor, the mentally disabled—we would have more Newtons, Platos, as well as “a Socrates who will drink no hemlock, and a Jesus who will not die on the cross.”
In addition to more enlightened minds at the top of the social sphere, those in the lower realms would have better pay. One of the chief problems of large families, Sanger writes, is their propensity to crowd the factories, pitting father and mother against children in the fight for work and money. Labor would be in better shape because there would be fewer workers. As if cultural betterment and better labor conditions weren’t enough, there would also be an end to war, Sanger promised, because nations are only willing to waste human capital and spill human blood because there is an abundance of it.
An end to abortion, infanticide, child abuse, and war, and a general uplifting of mankind through more enlightened women and offspring—these are the fruits of birth control, Sanger preached. The most dramatic transformation would take place for the lowest classes, which would see a complete turnaround in their conditions.
So what has been the outcome of Margaret Sanger’s gospel? Have we seen greater value placed on human life? Less war? Better working conditions? A more enlightened populace?
We may laugh, if only to keep from weeping.
Sanger believed that the pill would make sex more joyful for women; in at least some women, birth control actually lowers libido, and that is to say nothing of whether sex so cheaply and casually given, outside the confines of marriage, can be termed “joyful.” She thought the pill would make marriages better, but divorce rates have soared since it came onto the market. Perhaps the greatest irony lies in the fact that Sanger and others touted the oral contraceptive as a cheap, efficient, highly effective remedy for poor women struggling with too many babies and for the worldwide “problem” of overpopulation. As Mr. Eig writes, “the pill has been far more popular and had greater impact among the affluent than the poor and has been far more widely used in developed countries than developing ones.”
What many social commentators (Andrew Cherlin, Charles Murray, and Kay Hymowitz, among others) have also noted is that the pill fundamentally altered the marriage marketplace by making sex something that men expect before tying the knot, and can, in fact, get almost wherever and whenever they please. With a new economy in which the wealthy and college educated are able to sustain stable careers, upper-class women still see the benefit to marriage, and to delaying childbearing until after marriage. Those with less education and far fewer opportunities see no protections in marriage, and unwed childbearing, cohabitation, divorce, and other markers of family instability are rampant among the working classes. The greatest victims are of course the children, who suffer all the heartbreak of family breakdown, and then continue in their parents’ footsteps when making their own decisions about family.
So it seems that the poor, the women that Sanger professed to be interested in helping, most suffer the Pill’s unintended consequences. Poor women—those whom Sanger most wanted to help, those at whom the most “sex ed” and contraceptive information are directed—are still the ones most likely to bear either unintended or semi-intended children, and the most likely to bear them out of wedlock, and to raise them by themselves.
Such outcomes could not be doubted, given that they are the consequences of a gnostic heresy. Heresies have a way of producing bitter fruit. The wisdom of man is foolishness to God. Subverting the natural order by artificially and indefinitely divorcing sex from procreation has had the effect not of putting woman in control of her body, but rather of cheapening her body and putting it at the disposal of both herself and the man with whom she sleeps. Her body is no longer a vessel of life, a delight to one husband and a comfort to children, a holy thing created by God with remarkable procreative power subject to His will alone, but a mere instrument of temporary human pleasure.
Man and woman alike are now more enslaved than ever, not as much to the perils of “unwanted childbearing” that Sanger so dreaded, but rather to the perils of their own passions. Of this, we should be very afraid. A nation of citizens enslaved to sexual passion and reaping its full consequences is a nation in grave peril. But the first step to addressing a wrong is to recognize it for what it is. And the first step in mending a nation’s sexual ethic is to recognize its heretical beginnings.
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The featured image is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.