A controversy is brewing over a series of billboards in Georgia that link abortion and race. The billboards feature the face of a small black child with the words "Black children are an endangered species" above the photo and the website address "TooManyAborted.com" below. It is hard to imagine a more combustible policy concern than this, touching two of the dominant political concerns at the beginning of the twenty-first: The enduring differences between the races despite the enactment of civil rights laws and the role of religiously informed values in the political realm.
"These one-issue approaches that are not about saving the black family or black children, it's just a big distraction," Spelman College professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall to the AP. "Many black people don't know who Margaret Sanger is and could care less."
I agree with professor Guy-Sheftall on two points. First, if we have learned anything in the past almost forty years since Roe it is that a pro-life strategy that is "one-issue" is bound to fail. I can see how Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s insistence on a "seamless garment" approach to life issues was mishandled and mischaracterized, but the distortions came from those mischaracterizations, not from Cardinal Bernardin. Abortion is a foundational concern for Catholics, it is not just one issue among many, but it does not exhaust the scope nor the demands of Catholic Social Teaching and the failure to see this does nothing to make our anti-abortion arguments more persuasive.
Second, I agree with the professor that "many black people don’t know who Margaret Sanger is and could care less." I suspect the same could be said for many white people too. Certainly, every liberal should know who Margaret Sanger was because, in addition to founding Planned Parenthood, Sanger exhibited in exemplary form the kind of hideous heresy to which liberalism is prone. There is a reason Sanger appeared at KKK rallies: She really did think that it was a good idea to put birth control clinics in poor black neighborhoods to discourage the population growth of "inferior races." She really did advocate eugenics before Josef Mengele gave that branch of science a bad name. If conservativism runs amok into fascism and romanticism runs amok into communism, liberalism runs amok into Margaret Sanger, a kind of protean sensibility that is so inhumane it becomes the antithesis of the liberal values it started with. "[This journal] is not a money-making venture," Sanger wrote in the inaugural issue of the Birth Control Review, "but the forerunner of a new era, an era when men and women shall have thrown off the yoke of medieval superstition and be free!" For a fuller explanation of Sanger’s butchery of liberalism, see Chapter 5 in my book Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats.
Nor was Sanger alone. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of the great jurists in the history of the Supreme Court, famously said in the1927 forced sterilization case Buck v. Bell that "three generations of imbeciles are enough." The Court upheld the state’s right to forcibly sterilize mentally handicapped citizens.
Liberals have a special obligation to recognize how their own tradition became so deformed just as conservatives have a special obligation in voicing their concerns about liberal democracy to remember the lessons of Weimar and romantics who pine for an age without pain have an obligation to remember the lessons of Bolshevism. Any human construct, and politics is always a human construct, will have its weak link. The better part of wisdom always lies in recognizing what wisdom resides in the viewpoints you do not share, in recognizing how alternate points of view can refine and strengthen your own. I was born into this world with a liberal heart and have come to delight in the liberal patrimony, but liberalism’s greatest twentieth century thinker, Isaiah Berlin, spent his intellectual life with Vico, Hamann and Herder for a reason. He did not ape those conservative critics of the Enlightenment, but he learned from them and emerged as the most original liberal thinker of his time.
And, conservatives have much to think about when they ponder these billboards in Georgia. Just what do they know about the difficulties and challenges that face black America? Do they recognize that their invocations of Ronald Reagan’s name as if he was some kind of savior, rings hollow in black America, not least because of the race baiting that his campaigns entailed, the references to "welfare queens" and the like, but because he launched a new economic era in which the rich continue to get richer and the poor to get poorer, and America remains too selfish to recognize that we need to pay more, not less, in taxes if we are to maintain the standards of living which our forbears gave to us. Conservatives have to recognize that as long as this country does not treat health care as a universal right, as an entitlement, poor black women (and poor white women and poor Latina women) will get $400 abortions because they can’t afford the $10,000 it costs to give birth in America today. Health care is pro-life too, my conservative friends, and it will take more than tort reform to help poor women to keep their children.
So, hats off to the people who conceived this billboard campaign. It touches on profound and important issues and causes everyone to think more deeply.