Planned Parenthood's Founder vs. a Saint

Planned Parenthood has been in the headlines lately, as the Republican House, led by Catholic Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, battles to end taxpayer funding of the nation’s largest abortion provider. This has provoked hysteria in many opponents, who have described defunding attempts as everything from a “vendetta” against women (Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.) to a “war on women” (Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.) to a “bull’s eye” on the chest of women (Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.).

As a pro-life Catholic deeply disturbed by the death culture, I can’t avoid Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, and her legacy. Ben Wiker and Don DeMarco, both Register contributors, aptly described her as one of the “architects of the culture of death.” Oddly enough, I’ve also found Sanger impossible to avoid in my research on duped American progressives. The Planned Parenthood founder made a trip to Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1934, where she was inspired by the Bolsheviks’ legalization of abortion and birth control.

In recently rereading Sanger’s thoughts on that trip, which she recorded in the June 1935 issue of her flagship publication, Birth Control Review, I stumbled across an item on page 8, where Sanger took yet another swipe at Catholics.

Sanger reported about an Italian mother of eight who had been advised by doctors to have an abortion rather than proceed with a risky pregnancy. The mother went ahead with the pregnancy, giving birth to her ninth child and giving her life in the process. Italian Catholics posthumously honored the mother with a “Christmas Night” award for her sacrifice. The award included 25,000 lire to the woman’s family. The reference to “Christmas Night” invoked history’s ultimate crisis pregnancy, one that likewise risked death to the mother (by stoning): that of the Blessed Mother.

As for Sanger, she was anything but impressed. In this final item in the June 1935 edition, published under the heading “Fascist Motherhood,” Sanger’s publication concluded: “Her [the mother’s] merit consisted in the fact that at the age of 50 years, when she was already the mother of eight children, this woman ‘refused to listen to the doctors who advised her to submit to artificial abortion … and died in agony in giving birth to her ninth child.’ The 25,000 lire must have been a consolation to the husband and the eight other children, whose mother could have been spared to them if she had the contraceptive advice.”

We see here the typical anger that Sanger regularly directed at Catholic teaching. (Another vivid example is her article, “The Pope’s Position on Birth Control,” published in the Jan. 27, 1932, edition of The Nation.)

I wasn’t surprised when I saw this. And it immediately made me think of St. Gianna, whose feast day we recently celebrated (April 28).

St. Gianna Beretta Molla was born in Milan, Italy, in October 1922, and was coming into adolescence when Sanger published these writings. She was the 10th of 13 children, raised by loving, faithful Catholics who followed the Church’s teachings. Highly intelligent, she went to college and earned degrees in medicine and surgery, opening an office and specializing in pediatrics. Her career took off. She married in 1955 and had three children. Ahead of her time, she happily balanced roles as wife, mother and physician.

Gianna’s pregnancy with her fourth child, however, did not go well. A fibroma (tumor) developed on her uterus in the second month of her pregnancy, and she knew she was risking her life for that baby in her womb. She continued nonetheless, saying to God: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate to choose the child. I insist.”

Gianna stayed true to her word, giving birth to Gianna Emanuela on April 21, 1962.

Attempts to save the mother failed, and Gianna Beretta Molla, 39-year-old wife, mother and professional, died a week later. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1994, the Year of the Family, and canonized in May 2004.

I wonder: Would Margaret Sanger have included Gianna Beretta Molla as an example of “Fascist Motherhood”? Would she have told Gianna’s story with snide contempt?

Gianna’s decision, of course, was not coerced by anyone or anything, other than her own conscience informed by Church teachings and God’s grace. She embodied a beautiful quote from Blessed Pope John Paul II, the man who canonized her: “The Christian life is a sacrifice.”

Put differently, to borrow a slogan abused by the abortion movement spearheaded by Sanger’s organization, Gianna exercised her “choice.” Yet it was a dignified, sanctified choice.

Gianna Molla chose as God exhorts us to choose in the Old Testament. She chose life, sacrificing her own in the process. She was a Christian who, like Christ, sacrificed her life in order to give life. It was her body all right, and she gave it up for her daughter, a daughter who likewise became a physician and was present for her canonization decades later.

I know that non-Catholics, as well as even many Catholics, will be uncomfortable with the two examples I’ve cited in this piece: the Italian mother noted by Margaret Sanger and the case of St. Gianna. They may struggle with that always difficult “mother’s life in danger” question.

The Church isn’t condemning unfortunate mothers to a bitter young death at all, but exalting someone who made the ultimate (John 15:13) sacrifice.

St. Gianna’s choice was, technically speaking, “heroic”: This is one of those rare cases in which the moral principle of double effect obtains. She could have chosen hysterectomy — knowing that her daughter would die as an inevitable and undesired effect — but she didn’t.

Gianna embodies a Church that has embraced life, whereas Sanger typifies an organization and movement — and culture — that has embraced death. The former is abundantly more fruitful.

Like Sanger, Gianna, too, was a professional, accomplished, educated, respected by peers — and remembered. Unlike Margaret Sanger, Gianna Beretta Molla offers a much better model for life.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books includeThe Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand(Ignatius) and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century (Intercollegiate Studies Institute).