Margaret Sanger v. ‘Humanae Vitae’

This is the Final Installment in a three part series about the Sexual Revolution. Press the ‘Previous’ button to read parts I and II.

In September of 1966, Margaret Sanger, a prominent proponent of the sexual revolution and founder of Planned Parenthood died in Tucson, Arizona. As a passionate sexual libertine, Sanger’s legacy of selfishness, even towards her own family is startling. Finding child rearing tedious she abandoned her three children to caretakers so that she could move about in the ‘fast lane’ unhindered. Even when her daughter died of pneumonia, Sanger showed scant remorse. Her son Grant observed that she was seldom around. “She just left us with anybody at hand and ran off, we didn’t know where.” Sanger referred to birth control as her ‘religion’ and devised her own Credo of Woman’s Rights: “The right to be lazy. The right to be an unmarried mother. The right to create. The right to destroy. The right to love; and the right to live.” And by love Sanger meant frequent sexual encounters with her extensive stable of lovers, just as her right to live did not include the unborn. In fact, Sanger was so zealous in her defense of abortion that one lover, Havelock Ellis, had to warn her to tone down her rhetoric, focusing instead on the woman’s right “to create or not create new life.”

After marrying into wealth Sanger became deeply involved in eugenics, a movement to limit what she termed ‘human weeds,’ i.e. non-white races, the poor in general, and various ethnic minorities who seemingly threatened her upper class utopian ideal. Like Hitler, she advocated the forced sterilization of supposedly inferior groups in order to control their abilities to propagate. After Hitler’s atrocities had discredited eugenics, Sanger’s American Birth Control League adopted a more egalitarian label, the familiar Planned Parenthood. But however sweet its new name, the impact on marriage and family was devastating especially to families in minority communities. In fact, her Credo of Woman’s rights could be a blueprint for modern day social dysfunction, most glaringly manifested in a broken welfare system. Rather than being a manifesto of liberation, Margaret’s Credo has effectively denied millions of children any knowledge of their own fathers while subjecting poor women to a vicious cycle of poverty and dependency.

For Sanger, sex was never exclusive to marriage. Even at 18, (around 1897) she had engaged in a trial marriage with Corey Alberson well before her first marriage to William Sanger in 1902. Always searching for new and more effective methods of avoiding pregnancy, her Planned Parenthood organization contributed heavily to the development of the Pill. And thanks to the Pill, sex has morphed into an entitlement available to one and all. In the midst of that crisis-laden year of 1968 filled with violent war protests, riots in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Russian tanks rolling into Prague’s Wenceslas Square another societal standard crumbled, almost unnoticed, due to an obscure conflict at Columbia University’s Barnard College. Scarcely a year in her grave, this micro-confrontation confirmed just how deeply Sanger’s sexual revolt had infiltrated deep into American society.

Life Magazine in their May 21, 1968 issue headlined this contest as “The Arrangement.” Barnard College co-ed, Linda Le Clair had been living for the past two years with her boyfriend, Peter Behr, in the college dorm in clear violation of school policy. When their arrangement became public, the resulting media attention turned this routine infraction into a celebrated cause which signaled the end of any administrative oversight of sexual conduct on campus. The media naturally came down on the side of the ‘oppressed’ students, not only heralding but implicitly ratifying this new notion of sexual entitlement, a la Planned Parenthood, which had been quietly invading American college campuses. Life sympathetically posed the coed’s coy defense, “we weren’t doing it purposely against anything, we just don’t see anything wrong with it, and so we go ahead and do it.” John Gagnon, a researcher at Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research then offered his own moral expertise, “It is after they decide to have sex that they (coeds) go get the pill.” Recall that in 1968 the High Court was still holding that sale of the Pill could be legally restricted to ‘married’ couples.

The article went on to speculate, “There has been much speculation that the Pill has accelerated the willingness (of girls) to engage in sex. The studies all refute this.” But since no actual studies were cited in defense of this conclusion, on what grounds exactly did our journalist base such an outlandish assertion? In fact common sense suggests just the opposite that the Pill provided great inducement for unmarried girls to experiment sexually. Certainly Planned Parenthood and Margaret Sanger understood this connection. In fact the same writer seemed to be contradicting himself where five paragraphs earlier he avowed, “The proportions of coeds who participate in premarital sex has gone up phenomenally in the last 20 years.” (more exactly in the 11 years since the Pill had debuted.)  Life, in essence, seemed to actively affirm this new open, quasi-marriage ethic in reporting, “under the arrangement he or she may not be home that night; the rule is, “don’t get hung up.” Margaret Sanger could not have said it better herself. She certainly lived by that rule.

Columbia’s own Margaret Mead rationalized the thing this way. “Young people are moving away from feeling guilty about sleeping with somebody to feeling guilty if the are not sleeping with someone.” Having slyly shifted the onus of guilt to those young people who continued to value chastity, Mead incredibly implied that the new paradigm of social responsibility is that one should be sleeping around! She continues, “The major demand of the young today is for someone to tell them they are good… They want the college to say it’s okay to use their dormitory rooms for love making, and they want their parents to let them use the playroom. At every point they are demanding a legitimization for what they are doing.” Mead’s position was that not only college administrators and dorm supervisors but parents themselves now had an obligation to facilitate promiscuous behavior, even within the home!

Yet surely, even in 1968, a large percentage of educators, parents, and young women themselves were able to offer cogent arguments against the practice of pre-marital sex. Life apparently had little interested in their side of the debate, summing up its own attitude towards co-habitation and the new ‘free-sex’ landscape this way, “The Renaissance inquiry, “Que sais-je?”  (What do I know?)  has more often become, “What do I care?”  In that respect I think the editors were fairly representative of the mass media as a whole in 1968 when the culture of sexual entitlement received its benediction from the media establishment

Over the past 50 years cohabitation has become an accepted way of life among young people, following Margaret Mead’s counsel, “I recommend that we have a different kind of marriage… in which young people who aren’t ready to have children can legally live together.” Of course, in such a noncommittal environment sexual abuse, infidelity, and selfishness will undoubtedly surface. One of the more devastating effects of Mead’s philosophy has been the explosion of divorce which has left so many young people today emotionally scarred and fearful of commitment. Mead blithely waved this problem away in her usual cavalier style. “We could, I believe, bring children up to accept the fact that this is a world in which divorce is a reality. We still behave as if divorce were wicked or a failure. Why is it a failure any more than death is a failure?” Mead’s solution is to paper over the problem by pretending it’s not a problem. Well, the children certainly see through that lie even if PhD anthropologists don’t seem to get it.

Easy contraception fundamentally changed the rules of the game regarding sex, marriage, and family life. Sex, detached from fidelity and lifelong commitment, is a powerful and potent drug with unlimited destructive powers. Even many clergy, who had been counseling their flocks that sex and procreation belonged in two separate universes, not surprisingly began to adopt a ‘Sangerian’ moral squint. By the mid 1970s more than one priest was heard to furtively remark, “I took a vow of celibacy, not chastity.” Today millions of families are shattered and the Church and society are both reeling from sex abuse scandals, but those toxic seeds were first planted by Sanger and her cohorts. This was the very thing that Pope Paul VI had gravely warned of in Humanae Vitae, although he was generally panned for his efforts, even among his own clergy.

The great British journalist Malcom Muggeridge, who eventually found his way into the Church because of Humanae Vitae, argued that, “contraception was something that would just not stop with limiting families; it would lead inevitably, as night follows day, to abortion and then to euthanasia.” He continues, “Throughout the whole Western world there now exists abortion on demand… Now if we move on to the next stage of this dreadful story, what conceivable justification is there for maintaining at great expense and difficulty the people who are mentally handicapped, the senile old. The temptation will be to deliver themselves from this burden of looking after the sick and imbecile people or senile people by the simple expedient of killing them off. Now this, in fact, is what the Nazis did… So (now) you can submit this: that it takes just about thirty years in our humane society to transform a war crime into an act of compassion.

As predicted, in 1973 Roe v. Wade  legalized abortion as the logical next step in guaranteeing absolute reproductive freedom to women. Those moralists who had tried to draw their imaginary lines in the sand (married v. single; contraception v. abortion) were completely defeated. The cat was now out of the bag, meaning that the real purpose of easy contraception was not about helping or preserving the family at all. The real end game all along had been unbridled sexual emancipation ─ no holds barred ─ just the way Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had always envisioned it. In her own words, “It is only individuals that count, not families.”

As to the immense personal and social costs associated with limitless sexual freedom, our wise moralists, judges, and politicians seemed more than willing to kick that can down the road indefinitely. As a result, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases flew off the graph. Single parent families proliferated, exacerbating already high poverty rates. Then in the 1980s AIDS exploded on the scene, particularly among active homosexuals. And though everybody was greatly concerned and willing to throw billions into new programs and medical research, the one discussion definitely not on the table was that of cause and effect: namely that sex, when detached from marriage, has a dangerously corrosive effect on the family and society. There were a few Casandras, to be sure, but they were mostly ignored.

Today, Humanae Vitae has its defenders, though still a woeful minority considering all the evidence piling up against the sexual libertines. One of the most articulate is Dr. Janet Smith who takes a very common sense approach to the problem. Forget about sophisticated theological arguments and social theories. Smith plainly states, “If you’re not ready to have children then you’re not ready for sex.” The Pill, like Playboy Magazine, has removed sexuality from its proper context which is Love and Life. For it is love that begets life and when you separate these two things you either get the adolescent Playboy culture which reduces human love to a commodity, or you get the ‘in vitro’ petri dish culture (sic.) which reduces children to base commodities by totally divorcing the generation of new human life from sexual love. The great deception was that contraception would strengthen the family by reducing economic and social strain on it. The reality is that by liberating unmarried couples from the responsibility of forming families in the first place, contraception ushered in a no-fault, ‘obligation free’ kind of sex which cast women as the tools of men, and men as tools of women.

In the final analysis Sanger’s revolution produced not love but a kind of human trafficking which strips persons, and even children, of their human dignity and true worth ─ all in the name of ‘sexual freedom.’ This new reality becomes painfully manifest at that telling moment when one’s lover decides to move on, essentially saying, “I’ve used up whatever you had to give me. Your value is now totally depreciated.” In one sense sexual relationships deprived of any true and lasting nuptial commitment are little more than modified forms of prostitution. Such relationships thereby run the risk of denigrating both oneself and the other to the level of animals.

Dr. Smith insightfully observes, “One is saying something entirely different with one’s body when one says, “I want only to have sexual pleasure with you,” and when one says, “I am willing to be a parent with you.” That is why the very title Humanae Vitae ─ On Human Life ─ implies a contextual framework of love, life, and family with all the beneficial things that these encompass. The encyclical cautions that widespread contraception will eventually be harmful to the integrity of the family as well as to the welfare of women and children in general. It praises and encourages marital love as something special, faithful, enriching, and fruitful. It upholds the value of conscious parenthood as a vocation freely and responsibly undertaken. Finally, it recognizes human life itself as something sacred, which from its beginning requires the creative action of God.

Sadly 50 years of runaway abortion and STDs abetted by the many disturbing emotional consequences of ‘free love’ have changed few minds. Yet surely as morning follows the dawn, so too a culture of sexual abuse is sure to follow upon Margaret Sanger’s vision of uninhibited sexual freedom. Her kind of freedom exacts its own terrible price, so often verified in today’s headlines, which is to become sexually objectified. Controlling one’s fertility is the easy part. But controlling the driving passions of susceptible human nature lies far beyond the scope of any pill, implant, or surgical procedure. This reality poses the 21st century feminist’s most vexing conundrum.

People more often believe as they have lived, not as reason or truth dictates. Sanger’s shrill disciples still chant her deceptive rhetoric of, “every child a wanted child,” to justify slaughtering those innocents they deem “unwanted.” Facts seem to have little impact on those who have already set their minds on some particular course. That is why obtuse protesters like Fr. Charles Curran, now 84, can be as intransigently opposed to Humanae Vitae as he was in 1968 despite 50 years of documented and highly visible carnage. Still, I have great faith that newer generations will be open enough to truth to learn from the lessons of the past. It is to them and their children, yet to be born, that the future belongs. True, they have suffered the consequences of our generation’s folly, but they also possess the power to create a future where fidelity, marriage, intimacy, and the family once again form a sacred foundation upon which every happy, healthy, and loving society is built.

Francis J. Pierson  +a.m.d.g.

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