Choosing a Better Way: Rethinking the Rhetoric of Independence in the Birth Control Debate
Recently, as part of a series hosted by The New York Times, Roxane Gay, feminist writer and professor at Purdue University, offered Margaret Sanger as replacement for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Defending her choice, she noted Sanger’s work to support “women and our reproductive health” and added that “the fight for reproductive freedom is an ongoing one.” (An ongoing one that will undoubtedly be a large part of the coming election cycle now that Hillary Clinton, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, has officially announced her candidacy for President.)
Unsurprisingly, Gay’s support for Sanger triggered controversy. An ardent promoter of birth control, Sanger was also an outspoken advocate for the more grizzly idea of culling those deemed “inferior” from the human community, including African-Americans, immigrants, and the mentally handicapped.
Instead of promoting birth control as means of independence, it must be part of a larger solution of strengthening community—including our own responsibility to women in very vulnerable positions.Ironically, Gay’s post came just days after evangelicals were embroiled in their own discussion about Sanger, birth control, and the world’s poor. Contributing to a series discussing evangelical’s relationship with birth control at Thin Places (a blog hosted by Christianity Today), Rachel Marie Stone recounted a story in which a Malawian midwife praised Sanger’s work, specifically her promotion of contraception. Stone then attempted to explain why we might reconsider Sanger’s legacy in light of the role birth control plays in maternal health in the developing world.
To some, Stone’s piece read as an apologetic for Sanger, sparking an intense debate. Surprisingly (and perhaps unfortunately) the conversation took the same shape as the one surrounding Gay’s post: How do we reconcile Sanger’s abhorrent views on eugenics with the potential freedom that birth control offers poor women?
Autonomy vs. Community
To answer this question, we must understand the assumptions underneath it. For Gay and company, the triumph of birth control is that it frees women from “indenture to their bodies” and ultimately from “the whims of men.” The conversation is peppered with words like “empower,” “choice,” and “control,” all of which take on particular significance in the context of the world’s poor. When women exist in cultures where husbands can demand sex at any time, where girls are forced into early marriage and motherhood, it can seem that women are enslaved to the natural rhythms of their bodies. We see high infant and maternal mortality rates, domestic violence, gaps between male and female well-being, and naturally diagnose the problem as a lack of female agency, caused in part by the female reproductive system. It’s also natural, then, to see birth control as a means of liberation.
At the same time, we must not mistake the brokenness that surrounds pregnancy—whether maternal health in Malawi or single motherhood in rural Appalachia—as simply a lack of autonomy. In reality, the brokenness more often stems from a lack of community. Whether it is a husband who abandons the responsibilities of fatherhood, a wealthy society that turns its back on the poor, or the man ambivalent to his wife or daughter’s well-being, the problem is not simply a woman’s lack of independence. What’s missing is communal interdependence.
The problem is too little mutual care.
Even accepting this, many still believe wider access to birth control is the solution. If no one will care for them, women must find a way to care for themselves. And birth control can do this. It can free a girl or woman from the fallout of broken community; it can protect her—not simply from the possibility of children—but from what happens when she lacks the support necessary to bear and nurture those children. It shelters her from an abandonment that is already occurring.
But there’s a problem with this approach: using the language of independence cannot address the root cause of her problems. It may even exacerbate them. If independence is the goal, if autonomy is how human beings best flourish, how can we criticize those who have already exercised theirs? How can we condemn those who have abandoned her?
Worse: framing the problem as a woman’s “indenture to her body” confuses a woman’s natural ability to bear and nurture life with the brokenness that surrounds her. In this approach, she herself is part of the problem.
As Christians, we believe that our bodies, male and female, are good. We must steward them, but we are not prisoners to them. We also believe that, as image bearers of a God who exists in dependent communion, human beings flourish in community. At the same time, we also believe that this world is a very broken place, devastated by the effects of the Fall. It is a world where the weakest among us bear the brunt of evil. So that the very bonds of community designed to support a woman often end up abusing her.
And this is why so many advocates for birth control speak in terms of personal agency. They see the abuse and want to protect women from it. For them, the solution is independence, cutting the abusive ties. But when Christians approach the question of birth control, especially in context of the poor, we must handle the rhetoric of independence carefully. Always, always, we are pursuing communion.
The question we must ask ourselves, then, is whether we are relying on birth control to avoid the harder work of forming just and caring communities.
It’s easy for us as well-off Western Christians to miss the significance of this question. For us, the conversation about how and whether to use birth control plays out in relative safety. For a wealthy, educated woman in a committed relationship, birth control is a way to enact a larger life plan and steward her body. Children are a blessing, yes, but a blessing to be managed along with so many other blessings.
But what about for those who live in the midst of societal brokenness? What about for those whose partners and communities have abandoned them? Wider access to birth control alone will not compensate for these hard realities; unlike her privileged peer, a poor woman can’t use birth control to choose where children fit into her future plans simply because so much of her life has already been determined by the brokenness around her.
When healthy bonds of community are missing, as is so often the case in poorer contexts, the conversation must change. Instead of promoting birth control as means of independence, it must be part of a larger solution of strengthening community—including our own responsibility to women in very vulnerable positions. This may mean partnering with local crisis pregnancy centers to offer holistic care; it might mean reaching out to the single moms in our churches and communities, offering to care for their children while they work or take a much-needed rest; or it might mean advocating for international policy that supports “the least of these.”
Whatever form it takes, we must commit ourselves to the hard work of meeting physical needs, promoting stable and just government, and spreading the gospel that teaches us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Including our daughters, wives, and sisters.
Margaret Sanger’s solution to the brokenness surrounding poor women was simply to stop them from having children. Instead of developing societies that would support the poor and weak, she advocated for eradicating the poor and weak from society. But as Christians, we do not believe that a woman’s ability to conceive is the problem. Abandonment and communal brokenness is. So that even as we work to protect those most affected by the fallout of evil, our goal is never simply to stop a poor woman from having children; our goal is always to work toward a society that will care for her when she does.
This is half of a really good article.The focus on birth control is a problem because it is treating the symptom, not the underlying problem. By focusing on a symptom (the lack of availability of birth control) rather than the underlying issue (men viewing women as chattel) we only succeed in making ourselves feel good for “helping” and ultimately do little real good (and it is possible to argue a lot of harm). I did have a problem with the article in that it didn’t follow up with the obvious – The Gospel/Missions. I strongly agree with helping those in need, but if that becomes the focus, rather than bringing people Christ, then we succeed only in deluding ourselves and in the end accomplish little of consequence. This, as I see it, is a fundamental problem with most modern American Christian activism – we substitute a passion for free birth control (or some other similar one dimensional symptom.) for a passion for bringing others to Christ. Obviously it is not universally true, but in my experience many people in American Churches have far more passion for things like birth control than they do for bringing the gospel to others.On top of this we completely miss (what I believe to be) the reality that throwing money or stuff at a problem solves very little. Here again we are substituting passion for a cause for passion for helping individuals. Meaningful change isn’t made by people who talk at rallies or political events (or by voting or sending money to those people), but by people who wade into the muck where they are needed most and show the truth by their deeds; changing one heart at a time. This article should end with a call to missions and the support of missionaries, without that it doesn’t have much meaning.
Hi, Hannah, You might also mention that God still speaks to people and that He sometimes tells them to have children whether or not those children fit Sanger’s or anyone else’s definition of “successful.” Of our five children at least four have “invisible” disabilities: audio deficits that make them vulnerable to a range of risks. And it was only through their desperate problems that I discovered the role of the ears in behavior, thus breaking new ground in psychology and the neurological science of behavior. It turns out that music can strengthen weak ears and I have written about our son’s healing from schizophrenia using music. Music not only heals any mental illness you can name but a range of other maladies not considered “mental.” The new International Association of Music and Medicine is taking this cutting edge field seriously. Last month the high-profile psychiatrist, Norman Doidge, published his second book on the plasticity of the brain The Brain’s Way of Healing and it contains a chapter on exactly the sorts of things I wrote about in 2008 in Listening for the Light. My point is that God arranges families so that we will love one another thoroughly enough to solve very difficult problems. God spoke to me clearly about the number of children we were to have, just in case I had any Sanger-type doubts when the going got rough!
Thanks for the important ideas in your article. The ears also play a pivotal role in self-control, another issue in birth control your might like to explore sometime.
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