And Eating It, Too: Margaret Sanger, A Life Of Passion
Working in East Africa, I used to give an afternoon a week to a remote Catholic mission down a bumpy laterite road. It was run by a Swiss nun, aged about seventy, and, astonishingly, it was as spotlessly clean as the most expensive Helvetian clinic. The nun, who had devoted her life to work in Africa, was surrounded by an aura of inviolability: in her case, cleanliness really was next to godliness.
Among my duties was that of giving a three-month contraceptive injection to mothers who already had ten or more children as well as heart disease that would render fatal the bearing of another child. The mothers had come long distances, and their husbands knew nothing of why they had come, for they would not have approved if they had known. The nun would absent herself while I gave the injection (though it was the mission that provided it); in the room in which I gave it there was a large photographic portrait of the Pope.
No word ever passed between us about the contradiction between the official doctrine of the nun’s church, to which she owed obedience, and the practice. I had passed the age when consistency seemed to me the greatest of all virtues and hypocrisy the worst of all vices. I let the matter rest in silence.
Would Margaret Sanger have been able to do so? The subject of Jean H. Baker’s recent biography, which is admiring but not uncritical, was born into a very different world, in which birth control was a taboo and, indeed, legally censored subject, so that combativeness was necessary to bring it into the open. This quality Margaret Sanger had, perhaps to excess; there is an addictive quality to fighting what one considers to be the good fight, especially when there is a limit to what one’s opponents are prepared or able to do to silence one. I think, therefore, that she would not have been willing to pass over the contradiction in silence.