Christianity Today is facing sharp criticism for publishing an article last week whitewashing the legacy of Margaret Sanger, a eugenicist who viewed contraception as a means of creating a genetically improved human race. According to Christianity Today editor Amy Julia Becker, the purpose of the article was "to draw attention to the number of women, children, and unborn babies who die in countries without access to contraception." Instead, because the article linked Sanger to its promotion of contraception, it sparked "an Internet maelstrom of comments," hundreds of tweets and prompted Becker to issue an apology.
It's no surprise the article sparked strong backlash. After all, Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, wanted to exterminate the "Negro population." She once wrote that birth control is "nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit." It's stunning that guest author Rachel Marie Stone tried to "give the charge of 'eugenecist' a more complete background" by suggesting that Sanger wanted to help women "be good wives and good mothers." I appreciate that Christianity Today quickly recognized this error and corrected it.
Yet, what I still find disturbing is that Christianity Today and its critics have failed to acknowledge something equally objectionable in Stone's article: it argues for a completely godless solution based on completely godless reasoning. In fact, Becker quotes Timothy Dalrymple, an editor at Patheos, who wrote, "I hope you can make this argument more powerfully and more effectively in future by not making it seem as though one must accept or pseudo-accept Sanger in order to agree." In other words, it's fine to promote birth control as the solution to suffering in the developing world; just don't link it to Sanger.
Now, I don't doubt that Stone's motives in writing the article were noble. After all, she was addressing the very real problem of mothers and children dying prematurely developing countries – something she witnessed first-hand working as a doula in Malawi. Stone also wanted to dispel the myth that women seek contraception – and abortion – merely because they're self-centered and don't love children. The reality is that many women in developing countries are struggling to feed the children they have and simply can't conceive of feeding another. Plus, they are trying to protect their own health. Men in their cultures often treat them as property and impregnate them early – some when they are only 12 or 13 – and often: Stone told of women with untreated tuberculosis and AIDS who were pregnant for the fifth, sixth or seventh time.
These women, Stone reported, sometimes resort to unsafe abortions, which can kill both them and their unborn children. Or, they can die in childbirth, miscarry, or give birth to unhealthy newborns, which soon die. These deaths – millions of them each year – Stone argued, could be averted simply by equipping women with contraception they control, like the pill or Depo-Provera shot.
Now, I grieve with Stone the incredible pain, suffering and death that women and their children in developing countries experience. My parents spent a decade serving as medical missionaries in Zimbabwe. And, though I was very young when we lived there, I have visited Africa as a teenager and adult and witnessed the same realities Stone describes. That babies go blind due to their mother's untreated venereal disease or that pregnant mothers have to work morning-till-night is heartbreaking.
When Christians look for solutions to problems of suffering, though, they need to do so from a uniquely Christian perspective. They need to identify the true causes of suffering, which Scripture says always arise from sin. And, their solutions must be ethical and rooted in Truth. They can never be rooted in the assumption that if something works, then it must be good or true. (Or, to paraphrase Stone, since contraception saves lives, then Christians should promote it.) That's classic Pragmatism, not Christianity. Pragmatism assumes that nothing is absolutely true, so good ideas are simply those that help us adapt to our environment. Christianity, on the other hand, says God's principles are good and true – and if we follow them, life will work better. In other words, Christianity flips the pragmatic maxim and says, if something is good or true, then it works.
Pragmatic solutions tend to solve problems in the short term. But, because these solutions aren't rooted in truth, they create more problems than they solve. Abortion, for example, didn't stop unwanted babies; it simply devalued life. And, contraception hasn't stopped male exploitation of women; it's actually enabled it and spawned the hookup culture that's ravaging marriage and Western Civilization.
Stone's suggestion that contraception is the solution to the problem of women and children dying prematurely is simply not a Christian idea. First, this solution implies that suffering is caused by men and women's reproductive systems working precisely as God designed them to work: we need to sterilize the sex act. But, Scripture teaches the exact opposite: that God designed sex between a husband and wife to produce children and that both the natural process, and the resulting offspring, are good.
Contraception also raises ethical questions for Christians. One can argue, as does Dr. John Jefferson Davis of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, that God gives people permission to use contraception as part of the dominion mandate in Genesis 1:28. But clearly, contraception violates the natural process God designed. And, when one considers the theological meaning of sex – that God designed the two bodies becoming one to reflect the life and love of the Trinity – sterilizing that union becomes even more problematic. The more I've studied the issue, the more I have come to believe that contraception may be permissible, but it's probably not something God likes. It certainly isn't a solution Christians should readily embrace or promote.
A truly Christian method of solving the suffering Stone describes would first identify the real cause of suffering and then offer truly ethical solutions. Frankly, there are numerous causes for women and children dying prematurely in developing countries. One, the political systems in many of these countries are so corrupt and unstable that they perpetuate poverty. This then creates an environment where bad health care and poor nutrition run rampant. There's also rampant devaluing and contempt for women, which then leads to selfish exploitation. These problems are massive and systemic, but that's where Christians need to focus their energies. We need to treat entire communities, not just victims. And, we need to attack sin, not just try to manage the consequences of sin.
We can start by urging the U.S. to promote honest government in these countries. Let's make the quid-pro-quo for aid in the developing world democracy and good government, not family planning. The church in these countries also needs to promote the dignity and worth of women. It needs to teach men that true masculinity protects the weak; it never exploits them. And, as Christian charities have done for centuries, we need to provide food, clothing and health care, displaying that Christians value life. We should never, under absolutely any circumstances, perpetuate the culture of death.
Frankly, we Christians need to start thinking more like Christians. The world needs truth and light from us, not equally confused and secular reasoning.