Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 2

24 Post Ave near Dyckman St, Inglewood, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

34 Post Ave near Dyckman St, Inglewood, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Thursday, October 20th, 2016, continued

I exit the A train at the Dyckman St station, the second to the last stop on the line, and walk a couple of blocks to 34 Post Ave. Margaret Sanger moved into ‘an inexpensive little flat’ here in January of 1914 leaving her husband William, or Bill as she called him, behind in Paris. The Sangers had lived there for a few months as Sanger researched and wrote and William worked to establish himself as a painter. En route to Paris, they stopped in Glasgow, Scotland, so that Sanger could observe and write about the effects of municipal ownership, a system of public ownership often endorsed by Socialists, for a newspaper assignment. While in Paris, Sanger met with many socialists and activists, all the while researching French methods of contraception. But she was growing bored and restless, eager to get back to work and engage in activism once again. She and the three children returned to New York City around the New Year, leaving William behind to continue his artistic pursuits.

The Woman Rebel, First Edition, March 1914

The Woman Rebel, First Edition, March 1914, directed that inquiries be sent to Sanger’s 34 Post St address

The lady in the photo above, in the black and white checked jacket, is standing in the doorway of today’s number 34, but this building does not date to Sanger’s time here: it was built in 1920. Sanger’s apartment in the former building was small, cheap and according to Sanger, dingy. But big things would happen here. On the return voyage from Paris to New York City, she had conceived of a journal that was, as her biographer Ellen Chesler describes it, ‘dedicated to working women and intended to challenge Comstock’s prohibition of information about sexuality and contraception’. Sanger and a group of like-minded radical thinkers and activists launched The Woman Rebel from the kitchen table of that little apartment, publishing the first edition in March of 2014. One of those radicals, Otto Bobstein, invented the term ‘birth control’ which Sanger seized on and popularized, often claiming to have invented it. Perhaps she lied, or perhaps this is an example of one of those memories that longtime friends or siblings argue over, of a favorite term or phrase used often and long enough that no-one can remember who really came up with it first.

In a speech at Hotel Brevoort given a few years later on January 17th, 1917, Sanger agreed with the magazine’s critics that The Woman Rebel was ‘..badly written; …crude; …emotional, and hysterical; that it mixed issues; that is was defiant, and too radical. Well, to all of these indictments I plead guilty!’ She was proud nevertheless of the passion and sturdy defiance expressed in its pages. And what was printed on those pages led to her first indictment on obscenity charges, which drove her right back to Europe by the end of the same year she had returned and established this journal.

Apartment buildings which include 34 Post Ave near Dyckman St, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Apartment buildings which include 34 Post Ave near Dyckman St, in Inwood, upper Manhattan. The row continues for most of the block, all identical, including the site of Ethyl Byrne’s place at 26 Post Ave.

A few doors west in the same apartment row of identical buildings, heading back towards Dyckman St and the subway station, is number 26 Post Ave. Sanger stayed here with her sister and fellow birth control activist Ethel Byrne for a time in 1915. Sanger’s daughter Peggy had died of pneumonia just a short time before on Nov 6th, 1915.

Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne in court, 1916, image public domain

Margaret Sanger, left, and Ethel Byrne, right, in court in 1916

Sanger and her sister Byrne enjoyed a close relationship in their early lives and into the nineteen-teens. Byrne, who left her husband and children to pursue her own nursing career, was very involved with Sanger’s early birth control activism. She had gone on a hunger strike when imprisoned for her own role in Sanger’s Brownsville clinic, to the point of seriously endangering her health. And Byrne had often helped care for Sanger’s children while Sanger was in exile in Europe and out of town as she was very frequently. However, their relationship deteriorated over later years. Byrne was a direct, no-frills woman who thrived on practical work and remained a nurse for the rest of her life; Sanger had given up nursing in favor of theory and activism. Byrne disapproved of Sanger’s solicitation of wealthy society women for the cause; Sanger was willing to accept help, connections, and most crucially, money, wherever they were offered. It seems easy to pick sides in this divide, and I’m tempted to take Sanger’s on the grounds that I think Frederick Douglass would, according to my understanding of his pragmatist views: to eschew practical and political concerns in favor of staying true to the highest ideals of a cause is to show a commitment to the ideals themselves and not necessarily to the cause’s success. This won’t do when it comes to the liberty, health, and very lives of actual human beings. But it also takes people such as Byrne to make a successful cause: the idealistic, uncompromising, hard workers who are driven to perform many of the most laborious, tedious, and thankless tasks. Here’s to you, Byrne, and all your hard work!

163rd St at Amsterdam. 503 163rd St. used to face where the bus is now. NYC, 2016 Amy Cools

163rd St at Amsterdam. 503 163rd St. used to face where the bus is now.

I take the A train back south a few stops to the station at 163rd and walk to 502 W. 163rd St at Amsterdam. According to Bromley’s Atlas of that same year, the building that once stood at 502 was on the north end of a wedge-shaped lot, now vacant, at the intersection of 163rd, Amsterdam, and St Nicholas Ave /Juan Pablo Duarte Blvd. This section of St Nicholas Ave is another busy section of the street, crowded with small shops, fruit and vegetable stands, and sidewalk vendors.

Sanger spoke at the Free Synagogue here on Sunday, April 22nd, 1923. Rabbi Louis A. Mischkind, a socially conscious, progressive, even radical religious leader, had invited Sanger to speak on birth control at the Tremont Temple. When his superiors objected, he moved the talk here to the Free Synagogue but was still demoted for his disobedience. Sanger’s Birth Control Review extolled his decision as an act of free speech heroism.

St. Nicholas Avenue at 149th Street, Broadbelt houses built in the late 1800's, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

St. Nicholas Avenue at 149th Street, Broadbelt houses built in the late 1800’s.

St Nicholas Avenue at 149th, more apartments which date to Sanger's time, NYC, 2016 Amy Cools

Apartments on St Nicholas Avenue at 149th, some of which date to Sanger’s time here or shortly after

Next, I walk a little over two-thirds of a mile south to where Sanger, newly wedded to William (she called him Bill), moved into a “practically suburban” “little apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue at 149th Street” shortly after their wedding on August 28th, 1902. As of the time I write this, I’ve found no exact address for their apartment here, just this little description she wrote in her autobiography. Their first son Stuart was born here on November 28th, 1903. The strain of his birth added to her general poor health, already worn out by a tough bout of her recurrent tuberculosis. She was also terribly despondent, with what her description indicates was post-partum depression. After she recuperated for some months in a farmhouse and a sanitarium, the couple moved to Hastings-on-Hudson. As we’ve seen, however, the suburban life did not suit the Sangers in the long run, especially Margaret, and they returned to New York City in 1910.

I continue south on St Nicholas, turn left on on 138th St, and go about two long blocks until I make a brief right on 7th Ave, also called Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. Here at 2352 7th Ave, Sanger opened the Harlem branch of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau on May 23, 1930. The BBCRB’s locations further south in Manhattan mainly served local women of European descent but Sanger believed that many other women needed the help of her clinics. She decided to open this northern branch to serve them.

On the right, 2352 7th Ave (Adam Clayton Powell) at 138th St, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

On the right, 2352 7th Ave (Adam Clayton Powell) at 138th St, NYC, the site of the Harlem branch BBCRB clinic

This clinic in Harlem was actually Sanger’s second attempt to open a clinic in New York for black and other underserved women; she had briefly opened one in west Midtown, in a small, predominantly black, impoverished neighborhood called Columbus Hill. I have not yet found an address for its former location. This first clinic was not a success and closed after only a few months; Sanger thought it would be best to conserve resources to open a clinic in a place where she might reach more people. She had the support of many black leaders throughout these efforts, including the influential Reverend Adam Clayton Powell of the Abyssinian Baptist Church (for whom this street has been renamed), Mary Bethune, and W. E. B. DuBois. DuBois spoke here on one occasion that fall, on November 21st, 1930.

Interestingly, a rumor that persists to this day, that Sanger’s efforts to provide reproductive services for black women were racist, may have originated with an intellectual and tactical foe of DuBois’. A Harlem preacher named Marcus Garvey believed that the black and white races could never get along and must be separated. He founded a shipping company called ‘The Black Star Line’ with the ultimate goal of taking all African descendants back to their home continent to found a racially pure black nation. To this end, he opposed all forms of contraception or childbirth limitation for black people: the nation of his dreams would need as many citizens as black women could bear to make it a vibrant and strong one. Garvey attacked Sanger’s clinics and all efforts to help black women control their fertility as genocidal projects. DuBois took the opposite view, believing that black people could and should live as equal citizens in the United States and wherever else they wanted to live, and that black families could better gain their rights as their financial and physical health improved through judiciously constrained childbearing. Of course, Sanger and DuBois were in agreement on this, as they were on matters of racial equality.

The Harlem clinic was more successful than the Columbus Hill one, but still only stayed open for about seven years. Though Sanger hired a black doctor and social worker to run the clinic, there was likely enough Garvey-inspired rumor and suspicion of their motives that the clinic not as widely welcomed as they hoped. No wonder, then, that she wrote that infamous line in a 1939 letter regarding her efforts to serve black women in the South: ‘We don’t want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population…’ The ‘word’, untrue and unjustified as it was, had already ‘gone out’ for her Harlem clinic several years before.

Interior of 2352 7th Ave at 138th St, now CHA Upscale Salon, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Interior of 2352 7th Ave at 138th St, now CHA Upscale Salon

There’s now a hair salon at the on the lower level of the Harlem clinic site called Cha, and I go in. I find myself in a shining, sparkling lobby filled with mirror-lined and white furniture, a rhinestone chandelier, and white lilies in rhinestone vases. It promises pampering, which sounds glorious to this footsore woman. I see no one for a moment, then a voice calls, ‘Can I help you?’ A few steps in takes me to another stylist’s both, where a woman with a flowing, waved, luxuriant ‘do’ was doing another woman’s hair. I very briefly explain that I’m doing a history project and ask if I can take a quick photo of her lobby. She says yes, kindly, but distracted, focused on her client. I don’t catch her name as I don’t want to interrupt her task any further, but if you happen to read this, hospitable lady, thank you! Your salon is so lovely and welcoming.

135 W. 135th St, between Malcolm X and Adam Powell Blvds, where Sanger and family lived in 1911, 2016 Amy Cools

135 W. 135th St, between Malcolm X and Adam Powell Blvds, where Sanger and family lived in 1911

I continue to make my way south and a little east to 135 W. 135th St, between Malcolm X and Adam Powell Blvds, where Sanger and her family lived in 1911. The year before, the Sangers returned to New York City. The house Bill had designed and built for them suffered a fire which damaged the house and destroyed many of the furnishings. The expenses of repairing the house and replacing their lost things severely damaged their already precarious finances. While the situation was stressful and Sanger was frustrated with her husband’s inability to make a steady, reliable income, she was also bored and frustrated with her quiet, domestic suburban life. Upon returning to urban life, Sanger resumed nursing and Bill got into politics; both became very active in the bohemian Socialist scene. As we’ve discovered, it was Sanger’s experiences in these years that most inspired her birth control cause, from her Socialist activism on behalf of New York City’s beleaguered working class to the struggles of the poor mothers and families in the largely immigrant slums of the Lower East Side.

Earl Hall at Columbia University, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Earl Hall at Columbia University, New York City

As I head west on 135th St to the St Nicholas Ave station, I pass by a site I visited last time I was here: Ida Wells’ New York Age newspaper offices which published Wells’ groundbreaking Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and where Frederick Douglass likely met with her on at least onceI smile at the memory.

I enter the subway station where 135th St meets St. Nicholas Park and exit 116th, walking west across Morningside Park and up the hill to the Columbia University campus. It’s a beautiful walk; the park is lush and green, and the campus is an inspiring and lovely place, with broad lawns and elegant buildings in so many styles: Beaux-Arts, neo-classical, and Gothic Revival, to name a few.

Interior of Earl Hall, Columbia University New York, Amy Cools 2016

Interior of Earl Hall, Columbia University, NYC

Sanger at Earl Hall, Barnard Bulletin, New York, Fri Dec 11, 1925

Newspaper account of Sanger’s talk at Earl Hall, from The Barnard Bulletin, New York, Fri Dec 11, 1925. Click to read a larger version.

I head to Earl Hall at 2980 Broadway, a little north of 116th St. On December 3rd, 1925, Sanger addressed the Social Problems Club here. She delivered her lecture ‘The Necessity of Birth Control’ at 4 pm to a packed house. According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, at this event, birth controlwas discussed for the first time on the Columbia Campus’. That is, at least officially. The necessity of birth control was outlined in terms of major social problems that club would likely have discussed frequently: infant and maternal mortality rates, disease, crowding, poverty, crime, and women’s rights. The Barnard Bulletin published a detailed outline of the talk and its main topics (see the image and link to the right).

I take an indirect route to my next destination a mile away via Amsterdam Ave so I can see the spectacular Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on my way; it’s south of Columbia University on the west wide of Morningside Park. The cathedral is as wonderful as it’s been described to me by so many. I add my recommendation to theirs to visit if you haven’t yet.

I continue east from the cathedral heading for 141 W. 111th St. The doorway and its stoop of the building I find here is flanked on either side by classical columns with ‘Kenosha’ spelled out overhead; the others in an identical row of four apartment buildings (though this is the only one whose ground floor is painted white) have porches which read ‘Manitou’, ‘Pacific’, and ‘Mariposa’. I’m unable to discover any particular reason why they’re named this way. According to the Municipal Archives division of the NYC Department of Records, in answer to my inquiry, building names ‘were typically applied by the building architect or owner based on what you might today call “marketing-strategy”‘.

Porch of the Kenosha building at 141 W. 111th St, Harlem, NYC

Porch of the Kenosha building at 141 W. 111th St, Harlem, NYC

Here in the Kenosha building, Sanger attended meetings of the Women’s Committee of the Local New York Socialist Party in 1911 through 1912. According to Mari Jo Buhle, writing for the journal Radical America in 1970, Sanger ‘regularly attended local meetings with her husband, but only inadvertently did she become one of the most important activists in the movement. She was asked to replace an ailing speaker at one of the local women’s meetings [of the Women’s Committee of the LNYSP]. Although she had never given a public speech before, she accepted on the condition that her topic be of her own choice. She had little confidence about her understanding of Marxian theory and decided to speak about her own speciality, sex education and hygiene.’ As discussed earlier, Sanger and her husband William threw themselves eagerly into the Socialist scene upon their return to New York City from Hastings-on-Hudson. This place is just a little under a mile-and-a-half, thirty-minute walk from the 135 W. 135th St apartment I visited just before Earl Hall, where the Sanger family lived at the time.

141 W. 111th St, Harlem, NYC, at center with white Kenosha porch, photo by Amy Cools 2016

141 W. 111th St, Harlem, NYC, at center, with white porch which reads ‘Kenosha’

Lincoln Correctional Facility at the northeast end of Central Park, NYC, photo 2016 Amy Cools

Lincoln Correctional Facility at the northeast end of Central Park, NYC

A long block east, short block south, and half a long block east again takes me back to Central Park, this time to the northeast end. I’m looking for 31 W. 110th St, between Malcolm X and Park Ave, near NE corner of Central Park. I’m surprised to find myself looking at a placard across the front lintel which reads ‘Lincoln Correctional Facility’. It’s a minimum security prison, not an institution one would expect to find facing onto Central Park. It was once the headquarters of New York City’s Young Women’s Hebrew Association, from 1914 until the late 1930’s, when the Y.W.H.A. leased the building to the U.S. Army in World War II. That explains why it doesn’t look like a prison. It was a community center, with classrooms, meeting rooms, and gym facilities including an indoor pool.

On April 1, 1924, Sanger addressed the Guardian Mothers of Young Women’s Hebrew Association here; as of this time, I find no record of what she said here that day.

Left, Young Women's Hebrew Association Flag Ceremony at 31 West 110th Street, 1918. Right, LCF doorway at this address today

Left, Young Women’s Hebrew Association Flag Ceremony at 31 West 110th Street, 1918. Right, Lincoln Correctional Facility doorway at this address today. You can see the details and shape of the corbels supporting the overhang, the decorations around the door, and the placement and shape of the windows that it’s the same doorway

Duke Ellington Circle at 5th Ave and 110th St. Notice his statue on the tall pedestal to the right

Duke Ellington Circle at 5th Ave and 110th St. Notice his statue on the tall pedestal to the right

Just a half block east on 110th St to where it meets 5th Ave, I arrive at Duke Ellington Circle. There’s a statue of the great jazz pianist and his instrument on a very tall pedestal in a stepped, paved, and grassy park surrounded by a traffic circle and split down the center by 5th Ave, north to south. The circle surrounded by a couple of plain brick highrises, an artistically modern building which houses The Africa Center, a few plain old mixed use buildings, and small vacant lot.

I’m seeking the site of Parkview Palace, which, according to Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, was at 110th and 5th. There is no building now of that name and indeed, none at all that appear to be of the right vintage. I consult G.W. Bromley’s 1916 Atlas and find it named ‘Parkway Palace’ there. I spend a long time searching for photos or some other information about the Parkview Palace. I find lots of brief references to it, mostly in Socialist and anarchist history books since it was a popular meeting place for non-mainstream political thinkers and activists, and in old newspaper announcements for other events happening there. However, I find no photos of the Parkview at all. I do find a photo of the apparently more well-known Harlem 5th Avenue Theatre next door, but none that show the adjoining Parkview.

110th at 5th Ave, NW corner of intersection at Duke Ellington Circle. The Parview Palace likely stood where the Hermosa is. 2016 Amy Cools

110th at 5th Ave, NW corner of intersection at Duke Ellington Circle. The Parview Palace likely stood where the Iglesia Christiana La Hermosa stands now, the red and cream building to the right

Debate on Birth Control, Margaret Sanger versus Winter Russell

Debate on Birth Control, Margaret Sanger versus Winter Russell. Click to read the whole debate online

I’m seeking this place because Sanger debated with John Winter Russell on birth control here on December 12th, 1920. Russell was a lawyer and recent convert to Catholicism, and as we’ve considered in this series, Sanger was no particular fan of the Catholic church, to say the least. She was not a frequent debater, but she agreed to this one for two likely reasons. One, her participation fee. Since the Depression hit, she had to work harder to raise funds for herself and her cause. Second, this was another good opportunity to publicly refute arguments based on Catholic teaching. Sanger had many run-ins with Catholicism in the form of its influence on public policy as well as in the press and in local governments and police forces, as we saw in the Town Hall raid debacle. She likely relished the opportunity to demonstrate debating skills as a seasoned, well-informed birth control activist against this new convert to the Catholic religion. The entire debate was published by the Fine Arts Guild of New York City and is available online.

Russell gave Sanger many opportunities to defeat his arguments. For example: he equated the use of birth control with lack of sexual control, when the use of birth control actually requires a good deal of control in the form of foresight, planning, and proper use; he characterized sex without allowing for reproduction as animalistic and therefore unworthy of human beings, though it’s only all other  animals besides humans which don’t use birth control; he conflated abortion with other forms of birth control though that characterization is not scientifically feasible and as Sanger pointed out, birth control prevents the need for abortion; he argued that pleasure can’t and shouldn’t be enjoyed without its counterpart of pain even though it’s generally only the woman who suffers it; and so forth. In the end, Russell more or less delivered the sort of arguments Sanger expected, which were, as she perceived them, rooted in a narrow and rigid brand of religiosity, sexual prudery, misogyny, and lack of scientific understanding. She and many other believed that she won this debate handily.

I’ve come to the end of my third day in New York City following Sanger, and it’s been an especially long and interesting one. I’ve decided to return to Greenwich Village and enjoy the offerings of a couple of its long-established eateries and watering holes, to read and rest my weary feet as I fill my empty belly and warm my chilly self. Until tomorrow, then!

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Sources and inspiration: 

Adams, Michael Henry. ‘The Best Address: St. Nicholas Avenue and Place, Part I‘, Jul 17, 2012.

Another Look at Margaret Sanger and Race‘, Feb 23, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate 129 and Plate 167. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Buhle, Mari Jo. ‘Women & the Socialist PartyRadical America, Feb 1970, Vol, IV, 4F2, via National Progressive Review

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Debate on Birth Control / Margaret Sanger versus Winter Russell, by Margaret Sanger, Winter Russell, and Emma Sargent Russell. New York, NY: Fine Arts Guild, 1921.

East 110th Street [31 West 110th Street]. Y.W.H.A., detail of steps, interior. Photo by Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.), from Museum of the City of New York’s digitized archives

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Goldberg, Michelle. ‘Awakenings: On Margaret Sanger‘ Feb 7, 2012, The Nation

Gray, Christopher. ‘Built With the Ladies In Mind‘, Oct. 25, 2012, New York Times: Streetscapes

Grimaldi, Jill. ‘The First American Birth Control Conference‘, Nov 12, 2010. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

House Tour Preview: Margaret Sanger’s Window.’ Apr 22, 2010, Hastings Historical Society blog

Katz, Esther. ‘Margaret Sanger and The Woman Rebel, 1914-1916: Historical Essay‘, 1999. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Electronic Edition, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter Engelman (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999)

Latest News‘ The Birth Control Review, May 1923, Vol VII, No. 5

Mrs. Sanger Addresses Social Problems Club‘, Barnard Bulletin (New York, New York) · Fri, Dec 11, 1925

Mrs. Sanger Glad She Was Indicted‘, New York Tribune, Feb. 21, 1916, p. 2, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, NYU

Mrs. Sanger to Talk on Birth Control‘, Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume XLIX, Number 58, 3 December 1925

Muigai, Wangui. ‘Looking Uptown: Margaret Sanger and the Harlem Branch Birth Control Clinic‘. Newsletter #54 (Spring 2010)  of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

On the Road with Birth Control‘, Newsletter #21 (Spring 1999) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Revolutionary and Subversive Movements Abroad and at Home, (vol. I-II). By New York (State). Legislature. Joint Committee (address of Parkview Palace on p. 2020). J.B. Lyons: Albany, 1920

Risen, Clay. ‘Prison on the Park.’ Jul 9, 2002, The Morning News, New York, New York.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Then and Now,’ 1944, Typed Article. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Hotel Brevoort Speech,” Jan 17, 1916. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

Sanger v. Famous Father of 18!‘ Newsletter #29 (Winter 2001/2002) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sciancalepore, Victoria. ‘Rebels of Post Avenue‘, Jan 15, 2014, Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Silver, Rabbi Samuel. ‘Why I Became a Rabbi‘. Jewish Post, Indianapolis, Jan 28, 2004

Soclof, Adam. ‘Planned Parenthood Controversy‘, February 2, 2012

W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Black Star Line,” Crisis, September 1922, 210–214, via History Matters website (with introduction)

Let’s Have an Honest Debate About Abortion

Have you seen the image to the left on social media sites recently?

As an advocacy poster, it’s quite effective, isn’t it? It tugs at the heartstrings, it moves us to feel the best emotions we are capable of: care, sympathy, and protectiveness, as it portrays a tiny human life in a helpless position. It invites you to endorse its message by clicking on the image if you think it says something true, which it does. Abortion ends a life, and that life is human. At a glance, it makes a powerful case for the author’s position.

Now suppose we take another image

…and give it what appears to be nearly the same caption: ‘

Click if You Think Surgical Removal of Undeveloped Twin Ends Human Life.’

This phrase also contains at least some truth. Would it be effective in rallying people in protest against the surgery? The surgery could save the fully developed twin’s life, or at least give them some degree of freedom, opportunity, and good health not possible so long as the undeveloped twin remained attached.

At this point, on whatever side of the abortion-rights debate you are on, you’re probably already protesting against at least one of these. What point would you make, what argument would you use? ‘A fetus is not a human life yet!’? Or, ‘Abortion is not like surgery to remove a parasitic twin: one is meant to end a life, the other to save one!’? Or, ‘That makes no sense, to compare a beautiful human baby to an assemblage of non-functioning human parts!’? Or something else?

(Note: throughout this essay, I’ve decided not to use the terms commonly used by either side in this debate. They’re inaccurate, disparaging, and to my mind represent the dishonesty that pervades mainstream debate. ‘Pro-life’ implies that people who believe in abortion rights are against life generally; ‘pro-abortion’ implies that people think having an abortion is awesome and everyone should go get one recreationally, or as casually as a boob job; ‘pro-choice’ and ‘anti-choice’ imply that the other side thinks people should have no choices at all when it comes to reproduction. Instead of these terms, I’m using the purely descriptive terms ‘anti-abortion-rights’ and ‘pro-abortion-rights’.)

I’ll start by addressing the last of the objections listed above. While it’s true that the two captions imply a comparison between a fetus to a parasitic twin, they do so primarily in the sense that the subject of each shares this characteristic: they are both human life. They are both composed of active, functioning cells, they take in nutrients and excrete waste products, they do not decay. And if a biologist were to put their cells under a microscope, or a geneticist were to sequence their DNA, they would classify them as human and not as any other kind of living thing. Yet, as you undoubtedly realize, they are not alike in many other ways, especially this one: one is (presumably) developing in a manner that has the potential to become a fully functioning human individual; the other has no such potential.

But the human fetus, as well as the human embryo (yes, also human life) and the parasitic sometimes share other circumstances: in some cases, the fetus has some sort of abnormality that will prevent it from having the potential for consciousness or for living much time at all.  And sometimes, the presence of the fetus is deadly or potentially deadly to the mother, as in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, or in cases such as that of the unfortunate Indian woman who died in labor in Ireland a few years ago. In such circumstances, the fetus or the embryo shares this relationship with the mother as the parasitic twin does to the developed one: the one depends for its life on the other, but is also the cause of the other’s debilitation or death.

The contrast between the two images and their captions reveal one of the main problems with the commonly used terms in the debate: the phrase ‘human life’ is used without specifying what’s really being talked about, a sort of  ‘bait-and-switch’ tactic, in which sometimes it means one thing, and sometimes another. Is what’s being talked about in both images ‘human life’? Yes. Are they both referring to the same sort of human life? No.

In the first case, it’s pretty clear that the author means ‘human person’ or at minimum, ‘potential human person’ when he says ‘human life’. This is not at all the same thing as what’s meant when applying the term ‘human life’ to the parasitic twin. The parasitic twin, in the case of the photo above, as well as in most other cases where that term is used, is a un- or mis-developed twin that, if all had gone well, would have been a separate, individually sustaining organism, but as it turned out, lacks the characteristics of what we would normally refer to as a human person. A human person, generally understood, has a brain capable not only of sustaining a body’s basic functions, but of having or achieving some level of consciousness, to even if only to sense its surroundings, feel pain, and have some sort of capacity for instinct or emotion; it also has a body at least mostly capable of sustaining that brain.

The term ‘human life’ is actually very broad category, which the author of first image ignored when creating it. This category contains all of the following: a harvested organ, arecently severed arm, skin tissue grown in a petri dish for reconstructive surgery, sperm, eggs, human cells, a zygote, a  blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus, and last but not least, human persons.

I recognize many believe the last five in the list belong in the same category, so let’s explore that idea, which, in my opinion, is the crux of the debate: What’s the difference between a human person and a human life, if there is any difference?

Some might say it’s the possession of a soul that makes a person, a person. The term ‘soul’ is a nebulous one, generally a religious term referring to a supernatural, life-giving, consciousness-generating substance or principle that inhabits or in some way is enjoined with a human body. It’s also often used euphemistically to refer to consciousness itself, or rationality, or the feeling, emotional, instinctive part of a person. Yet for the purposes of law in a secular, religiously diverse society, we can’t rely on a concept such as ‘soul’ to decide the issue, not only because its existence can’t be proven empirically, but because not everyone is religious. But even if everyone, or most people, were religious, the fact that every religion, and each adherent of each religion, have different ideas about what the soul is and how and when it’s united with the body, renders it too nebulous an idea to derive law and policy from. For example, some believe that the soul enters the body at conception, while others believe it enters later, when the first breath is taken, when ‘quickening’ occurs, or when the brain is developed enough to attain consciousness. No, we must look to nature to inform the law in this matter, which most anti-abortion-rights activists now do.

Is it having unique DNA which makes a human life a person? I hear this argument used most frequently now that the basic science of genetics has become widely known. In my opinion, it’s the strongest argument used against abortion rights, since it’s the least nebulous, and based on strong empirical evidence. It does, in fact, support the idea of the individuality of a human in its earliest stages of life. If an embryo or a fetus is genetically distinct from the mother, aren’t we morally required to consider it a separate human being, and thus, it’s own person?

Yet the more we know about the biology of reproduction, we discover many facts that may undermine this argument. For one, embryos can split and produce twins, separately developing organisms that are genetically identical. Since genetic distinctness is what makes a life unique, should we think of them collectively as somehow one being, at least until later in life when they develop differentiating traits? A little less widely known: two (or more) fertilized eggs sometimes merge and develop as one organism, called a chimera. Genetically, the living product of this process looks like two individuals, with some cells, parts, or organs of the body possessing one set of chromosomes, and others another, yet it functions as a complete, individual organism. So is it two persons, or one, and if one, did one die, did one somehow ‘kill’ the other? And often, as an embryo develops, some cells separate and live on their own for awhile without developing into anything, though they have the capability to become another embryo; if that doesn’t happen, they die off. Was that individual human life a person yet? Many  zygotes never implant and begin development at all, and many embryos and fetuses (estimated as one-third to one-half) never develop to viability; instead, they die off and are absorbed into the mother’s body, or delivered stillborn. Should we be mourning the deaths (and unconscious cannibalism) of massive numbers of people, though such failed attempts at life are a routine feature of human development? The more we learn about reproduction, the more we find out it’s a messy business, full of false starts, blurry divisions, and multiples that become singulars and vice versa. Genetic uniqueness may not be enough, then, on its own, to demonstrate personhood, though it may be an important factor.

Perhaps it’s the potentiality of personhood that demands we should treat a developing human life as already a person. That positions seems a bit shakier: it creates an even larger number of problems when we consider how and why we should treat ‘potential’ things as real things, that do not admit of clear-cut or satisfactory answers. Should male ejaculate be zealously guarded as potential human life as well, and should we be dismayed by ‘nocturnal emissions’ or the removal of a testicle due to cancer? Should women live their entire lives ‘on eggshells’, avoiding all possible dangers to the point of not pursuing their pleasures or interests, as if they were already pregnant, given that they’re carrying all the eggs (potential offspring) she will ever produce inside her ovaries? Is it wrong for people to not be  trying to reproduce at any given moment, given that if a woman’s monthly cycle goes by without a pregnancy, an eggs and sperm die and are wasted? And why should we treat potentiality the same as actuality in reproduction if not in other areas of life? I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to answer these questions in a way that supports the position that potential personhood is equal to actual personhood; in fact, I think it’s easy to find that most of the logical conclusions of this idea turn out to be ridiculous. If there is a good argument for it, I would be curious to hear it.

To move this debate forward, let’s go ahead Andy grant the idea of embryonic and fetal personhood here, so we can move on and consider the next big question: is it ever permissible not only to destroy non-person human life (such as discarding spare organs, destroying tumors, and excising parasitic twins), but to destroy the lives of human persons?

Most people, I think, would say yes, even if rarely. For example, take self-defense. In defense of one’s own life, or in defense of another innocent person’s life, most would agree that one would be justified in stopping an immediate threat, even if that could only be accomplished by using deadly force. Many others believe it’s permissible for soldiers to kill enemy combatants in a just war, or even if it’s unclear it’s a just war, so long as they don’t target civilians. Others believe it’s justified to take human life if they’re a real but perhaps not an immediate threat, such as assassinating the murderous Hitler or Saddam Hussein. Some would even say it’s permissible in some cases of euthanasia, such as the following: the doctor who painlessly puts to death his terminally ill patients before the approaching Nazis, known for their brutality and torturous human experimentation, can reach them; the slave mother who kills her infant daughter, conceived in rape, so that she will not have to endure the same life of rape, pain, and misery that her mother did; the terminally ill patient who chooses to die rather than endure pain, debilitation, or the knowledge that their family would be impoverished by medical bills. Many believe more mundane cases of euthanasia are okay too, such as ‘pulling the plug’ on a patient who’s entirely dead except for life processes maintained only with machines. A few would even say it’s okay to sacrifice the innocent life of another to save many, as in the famous thought experiment in which you push a very large man over a bridge to stop a runaway trolley, knowing you’ll save several other people further down the track, yet knowing you’ll kill him in the process.

Given, then, that most people think it’s at least sometimes permissible, or even right, to end the lives of human persons in some circumstances, are similar arguments applicable to cases of abortion? Let’s return to the case of the Indian Hindu woman who died in the Irish hospital. If we grant that the lives of two persons were at stake, we are left with the fact that we’re mourning the death of two people, where it might have been only one. In the case of women (and all to often, young girls) who find themselves in a situation where the offspring they’re carrying threatens their lives, would self-defense arguments apply? After all, most of us don’t think that the right of self-defense only applies when the threatener is consciously aware of being a threat: they could be innocent of wrongdoing but still justifiably ‘neutralized’, whether the threat is from someone who is operating in a state of brain damage, insanity, extreme immaturity, or in the case of a fetus, incapababilty of conscious thought.

At this point, we’ve considered many of the key arguments in favor of the anti-abortion-rights position, and raised objections. Let me pause here and critique what I think are problematic arguments commonly made by pro-abortion-rights advocates, a good one and, I think, a silly one:

Let’s start with the stupid one, to get it out of the way: ‘If you’re against abortion, don’t have one, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose.’ If you present say this (with bumper stickers or otherwise) to one who believes that human lives are human persons from the very earliest stages of development, you’re making a statement analogous to this one: ‘If you’re against murder, don’t commit one, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose,’ or, ‘If you’re against child molestation, don’t do it, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose.’ How silly, if not horrifying, do those last two sound? If no one buys the latter arguments, no one should buy the first, whatever side of the debate you’re on. I beg everyone who uses this slogan to please stop, it sounds as thoughtless as it is.

The better one, called the bodily rights argument, holds that a woman’s self-determination, her ability and her right to control her own life and her own destiny, depends on her right not to nurture another body inside of her own against her will. While on the face of it, it sounds compelling, but I must admit: I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it for the same reasons I don’t think it’s permissible to withhold care from any person who depends on you for survival. Human beings are social creatures and all of our lives depend on one another to some degree, especially the lives of children, the disabled, and the very elderly, who are entirely dependent on others. All humans use their own body, in one way or another, to nurture  other lives: it’s a central feature of the human condition. I think it’s a case of special pleading (a logical fallacy) to think we can ‘force’ parents to feed and shelter their offspring using their body only when their offspring are outside the body, and not in all other cases in which they’re entirely dependent. If the argument claims that our independence and integrity is dependent on our not having to nurture others, this makes our responsibility to our children merely a matter of the child’s location, and of which resources we feel like sharing at the time, which seems arbitrary. Unless you almost literally want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, this argument weakens upon examination, at least when used on its own. Human persons are their bodies, and are morally connected and responsible to one another, required to nurture their children, or they’re not. The argument as to whether or not embryos and fetuses are persons, that they have become children who we’re morally and legally obligated to nurture, is a separate one.

Whether or not we’ve made up our minds as to what makes a human life a human person, there are several positions we can take. Here are some:

One: we should refrain from purposefully ending human lives in general. And we probably take this position because we agree with one or more of these propositions, with or without qualifiers: all human life is precious, fragile, and should be intrinsically important to us as a social species dependent on one another for survival. We should protect and nurture all human life insofar as we are able, since, from its earliest stages, it has the potential to develop into a an interesting, unique, and valuable individual, and it’s this potential that makes human life worth protecting and nurturing; when we make exceptions and habituate ourselves to ending human life in its earliest stages, we can become ‘hardened’, over time, a little less disposed to treating human life, in all its forms, as if it’s valuable. This is by no means an exhaustive list, there are many more such propositions in favor of an anti-abortion-rights position. And some of the arguments that support these positions are not only compelling, but true.

Two: we should be circumspect about ending human life while recognizing that nurturing, protecting, and sometimes saving the lives of human persons sometimes necessitates ending human lives that are not persons, and sometimes, if rarely, ending lives of other human persons. We should be honest about the real difficulties and dangers of preserving the lives and liberties of human persons in a world where pregnancy, disease, and other people can threaten the health, life, and liberty of women or their other children, especially in parts of the world where women traditionally have little or no rights of control over their own bodies, and where child poverty, even starvation, is common because birth rates outstrip accessible resources. Even if we have not yet, as a society or as a species, clearly identified the criteria for what makes a human life a human person, we should make the best laws we can based on all of the best information we have, not based on a narrow ideology, and to always make it our concern to err in favor of preserving the lives of persons.

Three: we should not worry too much about whether or not the lives we take are those of human persons, so long as the difficult circumstances we are faced with give us compelling reasons to take those lives, that when we do so we endeavor to minimize suffering, and we have good reasons to put the interests of certain lives first: those of sentient, conscious beings; of members of species in danger of extinction; of members of communities other than our own who presents a danger to us.

This list is not exhaustive, of course there are many more. My own position is closest to the second of these.

However we all disagree on the matter, we must make it our priority to conduct the debate in the most honest way possible. First of all, it’s because we realize that the complexity of the matter make it often extremely difficult to discover what’s the right thing to do given the circumstances. But mostly, it’s because only an honest debate will bring the true facts of the matter, and the actual issues we face, out into the open. Only then do we have any hope of actually resolving this important moral and legal problem. Whatever side of the debate we’re on, human lives, and human happiness, are at stake.

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Sources and inspiration:

“Chimera” –


“Jury Cites Poor Care in Death of Woman Denied Abortion”

“The Twin Inside Me” (documentary) (I watched this documentary several years ago, where I first learned of the phenomenon of chimerism)

“The Twin Within the Twin” (documentary) (I watched this documentary several years ago as well)

In An Argument, Give Your Opponent the Benefit of the Doubt and You Will Always Win

….in the sense that, you will be more likely to win your opponent’s trust and respect, your own arguments will be better, and you will surely learn something, even if you fail to convince the other.

Among the feedback to a recent essay (a critique), I came across this sort of statement: ‘well, what do you expect? Of course, the author’s a so-and-so, and therefore, you can expect them to be full of it.’

That’s pure intellectual laziness, let alone empty bigotry. Here’s one of the single most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years, and practiced and honed in my return to university: always, always listen to your opponent’s arguments carefully and respectfully, and examine them from the viewpoint that they might be right. You will then be in a position to actually understand the argument. And, if it turns out to be wrong, then you will really understand why, and your rebuttal will be more likely to be a quality one, less prone to fallacies.

Generosity pays off for everyone in the end.