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Nearly a century ago, Margaret Sanger promoted birth control as a way to put an end to poverty. That meant educating the poor in its methods. But she knew that this would be successful only to a certain degree. There’s a significant portion of society, made up of “irresponsible and reckless ones having little regard for the consequences of their acts, or whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers. Many of this group are diseased, feeble-minded, and are of the pauper element dependent upon the normal and fit members of society for their support. There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped.”

“Should be stopped” was code for sterilization, and now we’re seeing its return in a new form. Nicholas Kristof’s column today in the New York Times is right out of the old progressive songbook. 

Kristof argues for sterilization, albeit reversible sterilization, which is what long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) amount to. We need to put lots of new money behind promoting them, he argues, because teenagers are “drifting” into pregnancy rather than “planning.”

Now we need to be clear here. It’s poor teenagers we’re talking about, not upper-middle-class ones. They’re from the “pauper element,” as Sanger put it. The allure of LARCs for someone like Kristof is that it provides a technological solution to the problem of reckless behavior and lack of adequate “planning.” It promises to break the cycle of poverty.

Kristof doesn’t suggest forced use of LARCs. Nor does he use Sanger’s unvarnished language that’s so distasteful to our contemporary egalitarian sensibilities. But his column reflects American liberalism’s technocratic soul. We’re to help poor, young women “manage” their sexuality. They tend to be undisciplined and the methods that might work with our children won’t with them. So, in our benevolence we develop devices and programs that allow us to manage them toward the goal we assume all reasonable people desire, which is the secular liberal ideal of a self-designed and self-planned life.

The problem here is many-sided. First, there’s the limousine liberalism that advocates passing to the poor something one would not want for one’s own children. Second, there’s the cheerful neglect of reality. The plain fact is that some are not capable of self-designed and self-planned lives. Indeed, I would submit that most of us aren’t, though we often fool ourselves into thinking that we are. Finally, there’s the moral reality that some don’t want that kind of life, a reaction that strikes me as a sign of sanity.

Here in New York City the Health Department launched an ad campaign designed to discourage teen pregnancy by suggesting, not too subtly, that it’s irresponsible. Dubbed, the “shame campaign” by local tabloids, it’s very different from the old contraceptive solution long favored by liberals. That’s because it makes a moral appeal (which led many to object that it blames the victim, marginalizes, and etc.).

Moral appeals strike me as the right direction to go. Instead of “managing” teen sexuality with technology, we should address it in moral terms that take seriously human freedom. It’s not going to succeed all the time and with everyone. No appeal to human freedom ever does. But it is a sign of respect rather than condescension. It’s also more in accord with human nature. Most of us seek to live responsible lives, not self-designed ones.

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