What I Have Seen and Heard
Published: November 8, 2007
“Fifty Million French Men Can’t Be Wrong” was the title of a popular Tin Pan Alley song from 1927. It spawned a Broadway play title in 1931 with songs composed by Cole Porter. We’ve often heard the saying made well known by the song title, probably without knowing from whence it originally came. The song title suggested that overwhelming numbers imply—if not indeed guarantee—correctness, respectability, righteousness, or even moral rectitude.
The simple truth is that the phrase is only the title of a song and certainly not the source of morality. We do not believe that mere statistical numbers can ensure truth or should prove moral decency. In fact 50 million people of whatever nation can be and have been wrong in the past.
Every mother has used the timeworn phrase, “I don’t care how many kids are doing it, you’re not going to do it!” Mothers know that prevalent behavior does not necessarily indicate something that a youngster should or ought to do. Popularity does not ensure correctness—something every mother learns in “mothers’ school.”
Yet our society subtly and often not so subtly suggests that majority opinions do justify conduct or even should determine ethical behavior.
The latest expression of this propensity is seen in the proposal to provide contraceptives for school children in Portland, Maine. This is not the first school system where this proposal has been accepted. When I was a young Auxiliary Bishop in Chicago, the Chicago Public School Board there permitted the distribution of contraceptives in two high schools in the city without parental approval—two schools that served largely poor communities, one African-American and the other Hispanic.
I made a personal visit to the then-superintendent of Chicago schools and voiced my strong opposition to this proposal. I told the superintendent that this flew in the face of the longstanding school policy that prohibited even the distribution of aspirin to children without written permission from a parent. Furthermore, I told the superintendent that there was a health clinic right across the street from the high school on the South Side where kids could receive contraceptives, so why was it necessary to bring the allocation into the school building? I suggested that this initiative would be only the first step to even more aggressive and intrusive interference in the lives of students without parental involvement.
My intervention was politely received and then summarily dismissed.
I was then informed that the increasing childhood pregnancy epidemic was the reason for making contraceptives more available to students even without parental notification. I scoffed that making contraceptives more accessible would impede or halt this difficulty—all to no avail.
Pregnancy among young people is a serious concern for our society and continues to be. Yet does the resolve to provide more contraceptives for children really address the problem in an effective manner or does it merely send an unfortunate message to youngsters that we adults do not believe that they are capable of behavior that is truly human, moral and principled? Are we not suggesting that the same solution that we now provide to control animal overpopulation is the only effective response that we can offer to our youngsters?
Last week an Associated Press survey revealed that 67 percent of Americans approve of wider distribution of contraceptives in schools—a portion of that figure includes those who believe this distribution could be made without parental notification or consent. So the subtle justification of this type of behavior based upon majority opinion continues to erode our moral fiber.
Whether it be the distribution of contraceptives to our youngsters, or the defense of abortion on demand or the radical restructuring of what constitutes marriage—if enough people approve of these activities, our world seems to be willing to think that they are OK or appropriate. I personally believe that once again Mom was right all along!