In a New York Times op-ed last week, Planned Parenthood President and Chief Executive Alexis McGill Johnson admitted what everyone already knew: Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood’s founder, was a racist.
Except Johnson didn’t go that far. After articulating the many ways in which Sanger targeted and harmed people of color, Johnson said, “Whether our founder was a racist is not a simple yes or no question.”
And yet this was the text that preceded that conclusion:
Sanger spoke to the women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan at a rally in New Jersey to generate support for birth control. And even though she eventually distanced herself from the eugenics movement because of its hard turn to explicit racism, she endorsed the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell, which allowed states to sterilize people deemed “unfit” without their consent and sometimes without their knowledge — a ruling that led to the sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the 20th century.
The first human trials of the birth control pill — a project that was Sanger’s passion later in her life — were conducted with her backing in Puerto Rico, where as many as 1,500 women were not told that the drug was experimental or that they might experience dangerous side effects.
Instead of strictly condemning these actions, full stop, Johnson danced around the “harms” inflicted by Sanger and Planned Parenthood in their early history. The op-ed wasn’t an apology or condemnation; it was, as Johnson put it, a “reckoning.”
But a couple of days later, a Christianity Today column re-envisioned this “reckoning” as an “apology.” In her column entitled “What Pro-Lifers Can Learn from the Planned Parenthood Apology,” Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, earnestly urged pro-lifers to come to our own “reckoning” in how we understand and accept dehumanization in our movement.
To her credit, Warren sees the hypocrisy of Planned Parenthood’s “reckoning;” she prays that Johnson will follow her thinking to the “natural conclusion” that the “destruction of human life is wrong in all its forms.”
But Warren gravely misrepresents our movement when she suggests that we have “[ignored] 400 years of dehumanization of people of color.”
The pro-life movement talks about the horrendous scars of slavery and segregation frequently, always urging those within and beyond our movement to remember and learn from the horrors of our past. Just as frequently, we reflect on the heinous crimes committed during the Holocaust, never forgetting the millions who were dehumanized, mutilated, and murdered in the name of so-called “progress.”
Our movement is steeped in remembering these brutalities and calling them out where they persist in our world today.
But our focus is clear: We aim to protect the right to life where others seek to take it.
Warren wants the pro-life movement to take on issues tangential to but beyond the scope of this mission:
Additionally, Black men are still disproportionally more likely to be sentenced to death for crimes, particularly if their victims are white. Migrants continue to die while trying to cross the Southern border. And the life expectancy for people of color lags behind white people, a “death gap” that is likely to increase.
These are all life issues. Like abortion, they too point to patterns of dehumanization that lead to death. When we champion the protection of the unborn while ignoring the suffering of other groups, we are guilty of the same moral logic as Planned Parenthood.
Like many pro-lifers who tout a “consistent life ethic,” Warren conflates the fight for the “right to life” with a fight for quality of life.
And while this argument might seem attractive in theory, it only serves to remove our focus from the very basic right to life—a right that tens of millions of unborn children have been denied since Roe v. Wade was legalized in 1973.
Scores of groups are devoted to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, serving refugees, and securing health care for those in need. And more often than not, the pro-life movement intersects with those same causes, namely through the work of the country’s 2,700-plus pregnancy help organizations.
But if we were to look away from this work and take on every social issue as our own, just what would that mean for the unborn?
It might mean more articles in which their suffering receives hardly a mention. Alexis McGill Johnson certainly didn’t mention it; but even the Christianity Today piece was lacking in facts or arguments in defense of unborn children.
Perhaps as pro-lifers, we believe people, even Christians, are just as familiar with the facts and statistics as we are. But many aren’t. The Christianity Today piece offered an opportunity to discuss Planned Parenthood’s continued deathly impact on communities of color. It offered a chance to discuss how Planned Parenthood has sued states like Indiana in order to perform discriminatory abortions.
It offered an opportunity to say something—anything—regarding the more than 800,000 unborn children who are aborted each year in the U.S.
And they hardly received a mention.
This is not to imply that Warren does not care for the unborn. Her writing makes clear that she does. Very much. But in a country where hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake on a yearly basis, we need still more clarity. We need more voices speaking out on behalf of the voiceless.
If pro-lifers need a reckoning of our own, it’s not that we need to speak about the unborn less, but that we need to speak out for them even more.