If the gospel is to make a difference in our culture, surely it will come as a surprise, rather than simply echoing entrenched political positions. Few Christian ethicists today are better at surprising their readers, and the wider world, than Amy Laura Hall, the director of the doctor of theology program at Duke Divinity School. She has been willing to challenge utilitarian forms of medical research that undergird the modern university's power and prestige. Her arguments against embryonic stem-cell research have found a wide hearing, partly because she combines a fierce commitment to the dignity of the least human being with a keen feminist awareness of the implications of runaway medical hubris for women and families.
There are few ethicists working today who combine publicly accessible arguments with such a consistent Christian witness. Here, though, her answer to our big questionHow can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?may surprise and challenge a different set of readers, as she looks at the history of Christian attitudes toward unwed mothers and their children, and calls us to a different future.
Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, had a way with words. In 1922, she wrote a book chapter titled "The Cruelty of Charity." Charity toward the poor, especially toward poor immigrants, she opined, only "encourages the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others, which brings with it a dead weight of human waste."
In an age when upstanding Congregationalists and Unitarians were urging Americans to produce Fewer and Better Babies (Eugenics Publishing House, 35th edition, 1929), Sanger was in step with the times. By mid-century, most mainstream Protestant leaders agreed that the nation needed to calibrate carefully the number and type of babiesand immigrantsallowed.
One central means for ensuring the careful calibration of procreation was shame. Indeed, the author of Fewer and Better Babies anticipated that working-class parents who produced more than two children would eventually be considered "anti-social, as criminal members of the community." The anti-immigration and birth-control movements during the first half of the 20th century were linked by the sense that some people were beneath human dignity and would pollute "native stock American" bloodlines. The growing consensus during this era was summed up by the words of a Methodist clergyman from Missouri, writing for the Methodist Quarterly Review: "We should demand that each child born is worthy of a place in our midst."
Yet the most blatant use of shame I have found in my work on the history of reproduction and domesticity in the U.S. does not come from the eugenicists of 60 years ago. It comes from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a 21st-century effort. Pictures posted in high schools and featured in teen magazines show a Latina girl with "CHEAP" emblazoned across her body. The African American girl is labeled "REJECT," the Asian girl "DIRTY," and the working-class white girl "NOBODY." The very fine print places these labels in a different contextrecommending "cheap" condoms, for example. But the overwhelming effect of the design is bold-print humiliation, suggesting that teenage mothers are cheap, dirty nobodies, social rejects with no future and with little hope for their children. The stark photos are reminiscent of social-hygiene posters from the eugenic era, cultivating a potent combination of disdain and fear.