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Planned Un-Parenthood

Roe v. Wade at thirty.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By DAVID TELL
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That being born has its down sides--that abortion is what's mercifully best for the millions of "fetuses" who cannot hope to live lives so full and beautiful as Devin's--is the governing bias of "Behind Every Choice Is a Story." But Feldt does not state it explicitly; if nothing else, she is a canny politician. What Feldt does state explicitly, however, over and over again, in a tone of voice that admits no possible disagreement, is her absolute faith that abortion is what's always best for the mothers involved. They have chosen it, therefore it is good. We are meant to see this as the clinching argument. The entire book is structured to sustain the point, in fact, for Feldt has reprinted many, many letters from women ostensibly attesting to the body- and soul-preserving benefits of maximally exercised reproductive freedom. What more persuasive and reliable witnesses could there be? And who could dare presume to challenge the sincerity of their evidence?

Yes, well. The letters in question are genuinely gripping, nearly all of them. More than a few are deeply affecting, even unforgettable. But not the way Gloria Feldt imagines. Almost without fail, her correspondents make impressive, valiant efforts to express convincing pride in their decisions to abort. But few among them manage to pull it off completely; an undercurrent of profound uncertainty bubbles to the surface.

There is the college student who is "abstaining from sex because I feel that I owe that to the child I gave up." There is "Mandy," defiant about the abortion she had at sixteen--"I will ask my maker's forgiveness regarding many things, but preventing the birth of a child I had no way of providing for will not be one of them"--and wincing about the memory in the very next breath: "I didn't know what it was to truly be a woman until I was asked to give up the one thing that defines and unites us as a sex. That was the hardest thing I ever had to do."

And there is "Crissy," a high school student whose story leads the book, so pitiably confused about her experience that she is willing to consider the possibility that her own life, too, should have been interrupted in utero:

"If I ever have [a child] I want it to have the best that I could possibly give it, with a father and mother who love it. I was an unexpected child that perhaps shouldn't have been born. But since I'm here, I'm going to strive to make things better. [Planned Parenthood has] given me a chance to live and make my life the way it should be. Thank you."

"To me, this letter says it all," Feldt offers. But she does not elaborate.

"Behind Every Choice Is a Story" prefers to elaborate, instead, and quite lustily at that, on the character of abortion's enemies--on their "intolerance," "ideological fanaticism," "ingrained hostility to women," and failure to appreciate "the fullness and richness of human life." One of Feldt's favorite letter writers ventilates at fevered length about the pro-life movement's "animosity toward sexuality," about its adherents' "virulent misogyny" and "serious psychological problems," and about the fact that "many" of its allied politicians "lead reprehensible lives" behind closed doors. Such people are simply not to be trusted, the president of Planned Parenthood grimly insists. It is her final, foghorn warning blast to the nation's voters: Again, "abortion isn't about abortion," ultimately. For in the battle to preserve that one, singularly controversial reproductive freedom guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, an entire "worldview" of reproductive freedoms is also at issue. The whole warp and woof of contemporary American intimacy hangs in the balance, and "they" mean to take it all away from us. Put bluntly, which is the only way Gloria Feldt knows how: "If abortion rights go, birth control rights are equally at risk."

IT IS AN INTERESTING QUESTION, actually, what place, if any, the subject of birth control deserves in the current argument over abortion. Both are "about" sex and parenthood, obviously. But is there anything else of real moment that links them? To what extent is Gloria Feldt correct that abortion and birth control each now depends on the other for legal, political, and social survival?

As a constitutional matter, the two subjects are plainly related, if not by clear logic, then at least by clear precedent. Roe's 1973 recognition of an abortion right was based squarely and specifically on the holding of a 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Supreme Court had followed "penumbras from the emanations" of Amendments One through Ten until its majority discovered a previously undreamed-of "privacy interest" in adult contraception.

More broadly, as a matter of popular intuition, abortion and birth control appear naturally intertwined, like it or not, in two standard narratives of historical "progress": the post-Civil War march to gender equality in domestic, economic, and national affairs; and the general, expansionist trajectory, from the colonial era on down, of an intrinsic American impulse to individual autonomy. To this understanding of events, orthodox feminism has provided an especially influential contribution: an easily digestible, heroes-and-villains plot line, in which every step forward for women and liberty--out of the home, onto the shop floor, into the ballot box, and beyond--has been achieved against the stubborn and angry resistance of a status-anxious patriarchy. It is a cartoon. But it is a powerful one, with an elite and receptive audience already inclined to suspect that opponents of Roe, behind closed doors, must also, and with similar fervor, reject coed schools and miniskirts and the Nineteenth Amendment and pretty much everything else except abstinence and prayer.

THEN, OF COURSE, there is the apparently straightforward institutional connection between contraception and abortion--in the person and career of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Over a quarter-century period beginning just before the First World War, Sanger did more than any other American ever has to proselytize, decriminalize, and destigmatize women's use of artificial means to time and limit their pregnancies. Between 1939 and 1942, with her most important work already done, the two principal organizations she'd founded, the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and the American Birth Control League, were collapsed into one and formally reorganized. Though effectively retired (and privately critical of its policies and practices), Sanger did agree to serve an initial term as honorary chairman of the emergent successor institution: the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Which today, needless to say, under the leadership of Gloria Feldt, operates what is by far the nation's largest and busiest chain of abortion clinics.

Predictably--all by itself, her presence in Planned Parenthood's genealogical chart makes her an irresistible target--Margaret Sanger has become a deeply reviled figure in many grass-roots corners of the pro-life world. The issue is not her advocacy of birth control per se; few Americans any longer remember a time when the propriety of birth control was publicly in dispute.

Quite the contrary, in fact: Well aware that contraception is effectively unassailable in mainstream political conversation, having attained an almost invisible ubiquity in the United States, opponents of abortion attack Sanger's motives, rather than her work--searching through the historical record and attempting to identify, in the reasons she championed birth control, an ugly and unflattering ideological connection to modern-day abortion-rights rhetoric. Gloria Feldt likes her brand of reproductive freedom in part because she thinks lots of people are born who maybe shouldn't be. Might Margaret Sanger have been drawn to "voluntary motherhood," as it then was called, by an identical instinct?

There's been a rough brawl about this, centered around Sanger's relationship with the early twentieth-century craze for eugenics among American progressives. At the time, plenty of perfectly respectable people were of the view, and said so out loud, that "undesirables"--the physically infirm, the "feeble-minded," and the "genetically criminal"--were reproducing themselves too quickly and threatening to overwhelm their betters. Some among the better types thought it appropriate and necessary for healthy, productive, and intelligent families to engage the "breeding war" directly, and they urged their peers to procreate more aggressively.

Other eugenicists, of the "neo-Malthusian" tendency, believed that creating more human beings was always a bad idea and that birth control for the "working masses" was a more efficient response to the plague of "defective" children. Sanger joined forces with this latter camp, an alliance her sympathetic scholarly biographers have candidly acknowledged, with evident embarrassment--while trying, not very candidly and rather too hastily, to explain it away as a diffident, skeptical, and purely opportunistic marriage of convenience.

The biographers have satisfied no one. Major umbrella groups like the National Right to Life Committee have sailed wide of the fracas, but for years, samizdat folk research on Sanger has circulated throughout the pro-life movement's trenches. In it, Sanger is likened to Hitler, accused (unfairly) of plotting genocide against American blacks, raked over the coals for various outrageous pronouncements that she made (and for some that she did not), and invariably described--without much bother over where the picture comes from--as a lifelong and active "promoter" of abortion who was there at the creation and thus shares significant responsibility for the design of Planned Parenthood's subsequent, post-Roe empire. Birth control is one thing. But Margaret Sanger wanted blood.

As you might expect, Planned Parenthood doesn't see her that way. The imperatives of institutional image management won't permit it, for one thing. To Gloria Feldt, Sanger remains a valuable trademark, the "mother of the birth-control movement" whose triumph we all take for granted. Feldt basks in Sanger's glow, and she sees "many similarities with Sanger's day" as "I stand by Margaret Sanger's side," leading "the organization that carries on Sanger's legacy."

At the same time, however, Feldt is maddeningly vague about what would seem to be the paramount question raised both by those pro-life attack leaflets--over the top though they may be--and by her own alarums concerning the threat the pro-life movement poses, simultaneously, to abortion and birth control. What are they, precisely, these asserted "similarities," of theory or function, between Margaret Sanger's warmly remembered and popular "legacy," on the one hand, and Planned Parenthood's network of steel tables and stirrups, on the other?

Feldt's colleagues at Planned Parenthood maintain an extensive, belligerently defensive essay about Sanger on their website. It allows that, yes, in olden times she once in a while "entertained" an idea or two that might be "out of keeping" with current multicultural fashion. But the piece otherwise rejects, categorically, all the harshest indictments lodged against "the founder" by the "anti-family planning movement." They are "distortions," "misattributions," or "outright lies." It is a lie, they say, that Sanger favored passage of restrictive and racially motivated immigration laws in the early 1920s. Sanger "never described any ethnic community as an 'inferior race' or as 'human weeds.'" Sanger never even promoted abortion, Planned Parenthood feels obliged to point out, strangely enough--not because the founder had qualms about it, perish the thought, but simply because abortion "was illegal and dangerous throughout her lifetime."

Somewhere, amidst the sucker punches and cries of foul, the truth must reside. And "somewhere," it turns out, is the enormous and altogether dazzling selection of public and private records just put out by the manuscript curators at New York University's "Margaret Sanger Papers Project." They too, like the earlier biographers, unambiguously admire the woman. But they have done their editing with scrupulous care, they have annotated the documents they reproduce with monk-like dispassion, and on the face of it they have held nothing back. "The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928" is the first in a projected four-volume series. For relevance to still unsettled political arguments, though, this volume, covering all the crucial years of Sanger's career, is clearly the one that matters.

SANGER IS A THOROUGHLY fascinating figure, and the book makes for compulsive reading, but it will likely do her personal reputation little good. Her own words make plain, in the diary-like detail of her piled-up correspondence, that Sanger was a case-study zealot. She was monumentally selfish, quite aware of the fact (unable, she admitted, to experience anything but "chemical love"), and proud of it, even. Hundreds of different people cross the pages of "The Woman Rebel"--husbands, lovers, friends, her children, colleagues and rivals in the birth-control movement, the spiritual mediums she consulted for advice--and one winces, hard, at Sanger's treatment of all but a handful of them. She was an excellent hater. She did not like Catholics. She did not like most of the leading suffragists of her day. She did not like those of her erstwhile allies who thought women should have access to contraceptives without a doctor's prescription. She did not like "middle-class morality." She did not like James Joyce, whom she read with "nausea."

And then there is the eugenics problem. Margaret Sanger really did not like people--many millions of married couples, she thought--who felt free to use their reproductive organs for an actual reproductive purpose, even though they had no damn business having children.

Planned Parenthood needs to amend its website. Sanger did, in fact, endorse the federal government's post-World War I immigration restrictions, during a Vassar College speech on "racial betterment" in February 1924, and she was "glad" the laws were "drastic" enough to help control "the quality of our population." She worried, though, about the "increasing race of morons" already on our shores, and expressed disgust that the American people should be taxed to fund welfare spending for the "maintenance and perpetuation of these undesirables." When we consider that "a moron's vote is as good as an intelligent, educated, [thinking] citizen," Sanger advised, "we well pause and ask ourselves: 'Is America really safe for Democracy?'"

Sanger did, indeed, call the "morons" who so disgusted her "human weeds"; it's there on page 386, and the book's editors tell us she "often" employed the analogy. And she did, too, believe that "ethnic community" was something the race-betterment gardener should want to consider when he was trying to decide which "weeds" to attack with his hoe. "The Jewish people and Italian families," she complained to the New York State legislature in 1923, "are filling the insane asylums" and "hospitals" and "feeble-minded institutions," and it was wrong that taxpayers should have to subsidize the "multiplication of the unfit" this way. Better that the state should save its money "to spend on geniuses."

At one point, Sanger classified eighty-five million Americans as "mediocre to imbecile." At another, she proposed a total, five-year, nationwide moratorium on childbirth. Score one for the pro-life pamphleteers, despite themselves.

One final misconception about Mrs. Sanger must also be addressed, it seems, and in this case the truth will terribly inconvenience the propaganda efforts all around. It is not right, pace Planned Parenthood, that Margaret Sanger declined to advocate abortion on grounds that it was then a dangerous and illegal surgery. "There are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician," she wrote in 1920, and "we know that abortion, when performed by skilled hands, under right conditions, brings almost no danger to the life of the patient." On the evidence in "The Woman Rebel," the real reason Sanger declined to advocate abortion, notwithstanding the law's flexibility and what she took to be the procedure's safety, is that abortion appalled her.

She turned women seeking abortions away from her clinics: "I do not approve of abortion." She called it "sordid," "abhorrent," "terrible," "barbaric," a "horror." She called abortionists "blood-sucking men with MD after their names who perform operations for the price of so-and-so." She called the results of abortion "an outrageous slaughter," "infanticide," "foeticide," and "the killing of babies." And Margaret Sanger, who knew a thing or two about contraception, said that birth control "has nothing to do with abortion, it has nothing to do with interfering with or disturbing life after conception has taken place." Birth control stands alone: "It is the first, last, and final step we all are to take to have real human emancipation."

PERHAPS GLORIA FELDT'S seamless-web, isn't-just-about-abortion "worldview" has got a little too big for its britches? Perhaps, for that matter, the whole "worldview" history of America's experience with abortion is ripe for reconsideration--at a higher magnification and at a deliberate, protective remove from those broad-brush narratives of "progress" (or "decline," if you are thus disposed) that manacle political debate in the here and now. If it is ludicrously illegitimate for Gloria Feldt to wrap her enterprise's grubby tradecraft in Margaret Sanger's skirts, what else might be wrong with the conventional, mythopoeic understanding of abortion, in which context looms larger than the thing itself, in which this one great legal and moral question is required to synthesize and reflect all the related but separate questions, too? Maybe, in the abortion story's details, it really isn't possible to see the same actors, wearing the same uniforms, impelled by the same social tides, at every yearbook's turn. Maybe, in other words, abortion is complicated--and meaningfully unique--and there doesn't exist a neat, coherent "worldview" that adequately and honestly explains it.

Abortion is so much a vexed, passion-saturated, and dispiriting controversy, of course, that the demand for a fresh look at its résumé--by knowledgeable investigators willing and able to abandon the distorting crutch of preexisting theory--may well be a demand for the impossible. A truly impartial, authoritative summa on the subject has yet to be written. And most books that have been written are top-heavy with engagé attitude. But the better ones do contain the facts, which are always useful. And the facts tend inevitably to subvert whatever attitude attempts to tame them.

For example. In the preface to "Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History," the best recent general survey for a non-specialist audience, authors N.E.H. Hull and Peter Charles Hoffer announce an intention "to show respect for and give hearing to a wide spectrum of arguments" about the issue. And then they fail to do so, especially in their final chapters. Among other things, the book is abrasively hostile to the dissenting justices in the Supreme Court's Roe line of cases, contemptuous of the modern pro-life movement as a cause analogous to "creationism in schools," and soap-boxy about the familiar Light-Against-Darkness dramaturgy the authors have layered onto 150 years of abortion politics. Hull and Hoffer are transparently pro-choice.

Nevertheless, underneath the editorial color commentary, there sits a highly professional piece of history writing, a judiciously selected and generous array of information that would, if permitted to speak for itself, make a thoroughgoing mess of the contemporary prejudices read back into the past each day in our morning newspapers. No ancestral Christian Coalition or council of priests was on the scene at the founding of the American pro-life movement. Nineteenth-century opposition to abortion was born and crystallized in the same phenomenon that made abortion increasingly prevalent in the middle class: the Victorian elevation and idealization of women's and children's status in smaller, "affective" households. The early feminists almost uniformly opposed abortion. Abortion has never been fully and effectively "illegal," and the push for recodification and relaxation of state-based restrictions against it was led, for most of its history, by men. Well into the 1960s, public opinion polls showed men, not women, had more liberal views on abortion, and no American women's group officially dedicated to the liberalization of abortion law existed until 1966.

The year before, when the Supreme Court invalidated Connecticut's ban on contraceptives, the nation's last, no one could remember the last time anyone had actually been prosecuted according to its terms. Thomas Emerson, the Yale professor who argued Planned Parenthood's case in Griswold, insisted that recognition of a contraceptive privacy right would not threaten any state's anti-abortion legislation. There was a difference, he agreed during oral argument: Abortion involves "killing a life in being." Eight years later, critical reaction to the reasoning of the Roe majority came principally and most pointedly from liberal, not conservative legal scholars. And so forth. This is history, too. But it is not a history recognized in the universe Gloria Feldt inhabits.

AND WHAT OF the pro-life side? Twenty-eight prominent and not-so-prominent opponents of abortion appear in "Back to the Drawing Board: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement," a collection of essays edited by Teresa Wagner, a former staffer at both the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council. There is dissent aplenty here. All the essayists disagree with Roe and reject what it's wrought, of course. But they also disagree, to a striking extent, among themselves.

In her preface, Wagner says, "We are not winning." In his foreword, Father Richard John Neuhaus, characteristically taking the long view, finds reason for "immeasurable gratitude" about the movement's progress. Mildred Jefferson, past president of the NRLC, who writes the book's introduction, hopes that pro-life activism can remain formally and self-consciously nonpartisan and unideological; most of the grass-roots sentiment such activism represents, she wants it known, is neither Republican nor conservative. Former Boston mayor and Clinton administration diplomat Raymond Flynn, in fact, suggests that the pro-life cause should be a largely Democratic phenomenon--and would be, but for the delegate-selection rules his party adopted at its 1972 convention. But one leading pro-life stalwart in Congress, Republican congressman Chris Smith, thinks the Democratic party has permanently "sold its soul" and should be written off.

The deliberative, bull-session atmosphere that suffuses "Back to the Drawing Board" works largely to its editor's credit. Internal debate is a valuable thing in a movement like Teresa Wagner's. Gloria Feldt is defending an existing status quo, and so, naturally enough, she does not want--and probably cannot afford--to be anything but doctrinaire and inflexible in her politics. Opponents of abortion, on the other hand, are the "out" party and have no such fixed point of reference; they must forge one from scratch. What ought to be, instead of Roe, and how it's best to get there, are unavoidable questions. "Legal incrementalism" of one form or another has lately proved the prevailing answer, but serious alternative strategies compete for attention and loyalty within the pro-life movement, and Wagner has given all of them a place in her book.

She has left her door ajar, however, and not everything that walks in is attractive. A couple of the book's essays are exercises in crankery. Something called "Vicarious Pain Syndrome" affects a woman who's had an abortion, according to Philip Ney: The dying baby's trauma is "transmitted across the placental barrier by hormones" and then permanently "resides in [the mother's] head." Children such a mother might later bear suffer "Post Abortion Survivor Syndrome," an "existential guilt" about their dead sibling that "might" lead them to "violence" and "terrorism." Rabbi Daniel Lapin grins his way through a shallow and not-very-funny explanation of why Jewish liberals favor abortion: If they acknowledge God's strictures against that, then they'll have to stop "eating lobster," too. Judith Reisman is allowed a long, vulgar, paranoiac maunder about "fornication," "sodomy," and long-dead sexologist Alfred Kinsey--and she hardly mentions abortion at all.

Finally, most unsettling is the presence in Wagner's book of a minority but persistent and hard-edged trend within the pro-life movement best exemplified by retired Notre Dame law professor Charles E. Rice. "The principle underlying legalized abortion is the principle that underlay the Nazi extermination of the Jews" (and, yes, contraception, too), he writes, and that principle is "agnostic secularism." Politics has proved a useless weapon against such secularism; "the political pro-life movement is dead." Instead, what's necessary is a "reconversion of the American people, one by one and family by family, to the conviction that the right of the innocent to live is absolute because it is the gift of God." It is "increasingly evident," Rice concludes, "that the answer to the culture of death will be found in the timeless moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church."

This, you'll note, is certainly a "worldview": the notion that massive religious revival is the only solution to abortion. And it happens to be a particularly unfortunate worldview in this context--for it is precisely the Manichaean impulse with which Gloria Feldt attempts to slander abortion opponents generally. On that basis alone, you would expect most abortion opponents to shun the idea.

BUT THERE IS a broader and more important reason why committed abortion opponents should feel no need for apocalyptic "worldviews"--of any sort. Who adopts such an attitude about something like abortion, unless he secretly believes he cannot make a winning argument? If Americans can't be talked out of their reliance on abortion until every single one of them has joined the Catholic Church, then Planned Parenthood will be with us forever.

An equivalent, desperate fatalism is detectable on the other side of the battlefield, remember. Gloria Feldt is a Manichaean, too. She raises false fears about the end of modern sexuality--she refuses to acknowledge the troubled conscience about abortion implicit in those women's letters she publishes--because she knows something that Charles Rice does not: When abortion is just about abortion, abortion may very well lose.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.