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Mahatma Gandhi and Margaret Sanger.

In January of 1936, a meeting took place between Mohandas Gandhi and Margaret Sanger. The subject of their conversation that day was contraception. Mrs. Sanger was, at that time, the archpriestess of the birth control movement in the United States. For her, as well as for her legion of followers, "birth control" meant contraception. Gandhi had a different understanding of birth control. For him it meant self-control.

During their meeting, Sanger tried to convince Gandhi of the moral legitimacy of contraception. Gandhi, who regarded this as sinful, offered a more human and less technological remedy for avoiding unwanted pregnancies. The great Hindu leader proposed a method in which the married couple would abstain from sexual union during the wife's fertile period (The Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. IV, pp. 4548).

Ascetic versus voluptuary

It may be that no two more utterly disparate personalities of the twentieth century ever met to discuss an important moral issue. Sanger was a libertine whose religion was pleasure. In a letter to her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, she advised that "for intercourse, I'd say three times a day was about right." Gandhi, known as Mahatma or "Great Soul," was an ascetic who dedicated his life completely to truth and peace. He led his people in India to their political independence, and both his example and his philosophy have continued to inspire others who labor for the same goals, including Rev. Martin Luther King in his fight for civil rights.

It is not an exaggeration to compare this meeting between the voluptuary and the ascetic with that between Satan and Christ after the latter had fasted for forty days in the desert.

Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood of America in 1939 and later became honorary president of International Planned Parenthood. Drawing from her second husband's wealth, she established the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau that financed the development of the Pill. Gandhi, a man of God, was entirely self-effacing. He advocated natural family planning and preached that virtue should be rooted in love. "If love is not the law of our being," he declared, "the whole fabric of my argument falls to pieces."

What is brahmacharya?

The specific virtue he practised and preached was brahmacharya, a Sanskrit word referring to perfect control over all the senses and organs. In 1924, Gandhi stated that, fully and properly understood, brahmacharya "signifies control of all the senses at all times and all places in thought, word, and deed." It includes yet transcends sexual restraint. It rules out violence, untruth, hate, and anger. It creates a state of even-mindedness that allows for self-transformation in God.

Gandhi saw in the use of contraception the potential for man undoing himself. The virtue of brahmacharya is needed for man to be truly himself and to allow God to work through him. Therefore, contraception, which divorces the sexual act from its natural consequence, divides man, separating him from the meaning of his own actions. For Gandhi, contraception "simply unmans man": "I suggest that it is cowardly to refuse to face the consequences of one's acts. Persons who use contraceptives will never learn the value of self-restraint. They will not need it. Self-indulgence with contraceptives may prevent the coming of children but will sap the vitality of both men and women, perhaps more of men than of women. It is unmanly to refuse battle with the devil."

Contraception degrades woman

Pope Paul VI's Humanae vitae, published in 1968, echoes many of the thoughts that Gandhi expounded about the evils of contraception. Gandhi stated: "As it is, man had sufficiently degraded woman for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how wellmeaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her." In Humanae vitae, the Pope wrote: "It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conception practices, may finally lose respect for the woman, and no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion" (sec. 8).

Gandhi insisted on self-restraint for the purpose of self-transformation. Pope Paul VI underscored the importance of "self-mastery" in matters of sexuality. They both spoke of the importance of education and the cooperation of external agencies. Neither was hesitant in identifying the use of contraception as an evil and a disorder. Both saw contraception as an enemy to marriage.

The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, long before he became a Catholic, offered an observation in praise of Humanae vitae that may be taken as an apt observation on the 1936 discussion between Gandhi and Sanger: "One of the things I admired the Church for so much was Humanae vitae. I think it's absolutely right that when a society doesn't want children, when it's prepared to accept eroticism unrelated in any way to its purpose, then it's on the downward path." The paths of brahmacharya and eroticism most assuredly do not move in the same direction.

Donald DeMarco is professor of philosophy at St Jerome's College, University of Waterloo, ON.
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Title Annotation:birth control morality
Author:DeMarco, Donald
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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