Why Is It So Hard to Call Out Margaret Sanger on Eugenics?

Author and social critic Mary Eberstadt had a wonderful conversation with Hank Hanegraaff on the secularist religion birthed by the sexual revolution, and the real duplicity in the way it turned yesterday’s sinners into modern-day secular saints — Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger being a prime example. The following dialogue is adapted from their conversation.

Hank Hanegraaff: If you look at this whole idea of a secularist religion, there are high priestesses that come to mind, such as Gloria Steinem, Margaret Mead, and certainly Margaret Sanger. I want to single out Sanger for a moment because she was a person who was very much on the vanguard of the eugenics movement. Today, we have a new hypereugenics movement afoot. I was reading a couple months ago about what is going on in Iceland, where they are now declaring themselves to be almost 100 percent Down-syndrome-baby free. They’ve almost eradicated Down syndrome babies through abortion. They suppose this to be some great thing and laude it as a step forward. In fact, Richard Dawkins, probably the most influential materialist on the planet today, says that it is immoral to bring a Down syndrome child into the world. So, we have this new move toward a hypereugenics movement that eradicates those who are thought to be unfit in society; and in their place, we are looking toward designer babies.

Mary Eberstadt: Yes. There is an implicit cruelty, to say nothing of a lack of diversity in one’s outlook, that would wipe children like that from the face of the earth. I’m so glad you brought up Margaret Sanger. We live in a moment where there are upset, agitated groups who want to pull down statues of Confederates, and they are making their argument in the public square. I am glad that they are. They are not just making emotive appeals; they are making arguments about how things have changed, and how we have developed morally as a people. So, whatever you think of their case, it is astonishing to me that Margaret Sanger hasn’t been torn down from her podiums all over America.

As a matter of fact, consider this: Planned Parenthood, for years and years, gave annual awards (the last ones I think were in 2015) called the Maggies, and they were named for Margaret Sanger. They were given to journalists who had written pro-choice pieces, and to other figures who had somehow come into the pro-choice fold.

Alright, let us look at this for a minute. Margaret Sanger was unflinching in her insistence on the inferiority of certain other people. She wanted to keep down the numbers of certain other people. She believed very much that there were fit people and unfit people. But, guess what? Fit people looked like her, and unfit people looked like, well, fill in the blank. So, it is very hard to understand why she gets a pass in a moment of extra attention to racism and extra moral sensitivity to racism in America’s past, when she was the embodiment of this kind of eugenics thinking.

What we are seeing is that in any other context, besides defending the sexual revolution, nobody would be getting away with this; but Margaret Sanger is getting away with it because she is a paragon of the sexual revolution, and she is the equivalent of a secular saint. I think people who stand against what she stood for should be proud of themselves, and I think that those of us who do are on the right side.

Hank: You know what is really interesting about this? I have looked into this over the years. Eugenics has been a huge, huge issue in the United States of America. Talk about a really virulent evil in America, and there have been many, but this is at the top of the list. But, the odd thing about it is this: eugenics was considered progressive prior to World War II in universities such as Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard. This was considered very, very progressive. Pro-eugenics legislation was passed in blue states ranging from California to New York. You had prestigious people on this bandwagon — not just Margaret Sanger. They had bought into an ideology that said that the unfit were affecting the genepool such that the fit did not survive as well, and so the only thing that we can do is to make sure that we got rid of those that were unfit. Moreover, as you correctly said, the unfit were oftentimes people that did not look like the stereotypical American. They were Blacks. They were Jews. They were people who had some kind of a physical malady. But this was something that was orthodoxy within America, and it really did not see its demise, at least for a while, until it reached full bloom in the genocidal German death camps. Then it vanished into the night, and nobody wants to say that they had any association with this eugenics movement. We are quietly paying reparations for the harm that we did, particularly to the Black community, and we, for example, are doing that in North Carolina. But, most people do not want to own up to the fact that this was an ideology that was uncritically bought into that devastated lives, and we are now seeing history repeat itself in other places.

Mary: Yes, once again, Christianity should get some credit for being on the right side of that issue. It is Christianity, infused with Judaism, that taught humanity that all human beings are equal in the sight of God. That is a revolutionary idea. Christianity, correctly applied, should get some credit for that insight. Eugenics was not some kind of Christian thing. It was a progressive thing, as you correctly pointed out. When progressives today wonder why there are people who are “standing on the wrong side of history,” it is because we do not want to be standing wherever they are standing, certainly not in the case of eugenics.

Similarly, Hank, I think Christianity gets such a bad rap for being bad on women somehow, but it was Christianity that introduced the very idea that men and women were morally equal — so morally equal that consent was required for marriage. This is a very early Christian idea and it is revolutionary. Were there equal outcomes? No, of course not. Were there equal economic statuses throughout history? No. But the idea that a woman’s soul was just as important as a man’s and that it would be jeopardized if she could not freely consent to marriage, and the marriage would be invalid without both parties freely willing it, this is a fantastic liberating idea. It is among the most liberating ideas ever to appear in humanity, and that’s a Christian idea.

Part of what I am trying to say is this. I think, for reasons we all understand, a lot of traditional believers have been in a defensive crouch because they were not expecting how ferocious the winds against them would become; they were not expecting all these religious liberty cases suddenly proliferating across the land; and they were not expecting they would not be able to practice their faith without public ostracism. But the defensive crouch is not the answer when what you are in possession of are truths that other people are losing sight of that have been a boon to humanity. So be proud of standing on the right side of the eugenics discussion. Be proud of standing against what Margaret Sanger and all other people like her stood for. I think we can be emboldened — without patting ourselves on the back — to know some of the good that Christianity has done out there in the world.

This blog was adapted from “The Sexual Revolution with Mary Eberstadt,” which originally aired on episode 18 of Hank Unplugged. To listen to the full interview, click here.

For further related study, please access the following equip.org resources:

Margaret Sanger: “No Gods, No Masters” (Bob Perry)

How the West Really Lost God (Mary Eberstadt)

Sex, Lies, and Secularism (Nancy Pearcy)

Sex, Lies, and Christianity: Reclaiming Biblical Sexuality (Melanie Cogdill)

Mary Eberstadt is author of It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies. Her writing has appeared in TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, National Review, First Things, and The Weekly Standard, and in March 2017, she was named Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.

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