Margaret Sanger, "Symposium on Birth Control," 15 Mar 1929.
Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of CongressLibrary of Congress Microfilm 129:44."
Sanger spoke at a Symposium on Birth Control, held at the Hotel Brevoort in New York City, sponsored by the Eastern Medical Society. Other participants were Robert Latou Dickinson, Hannah Mayer Stone, Stuart Mudd, A. J. Romney, A. A. Brill, and S. Adolphus Knopf.
Dr. Cohen ↑Pres of Eastern Medical Society↓ has honored me by asking me to speak here tonight. He has suggested that I give ↑to↓ you a brief history of the Birth Control Movement in America. It is an interesting fact, of which few people are aware, that the person who ↑first↓ gave the greatest impetus and the most important contribution to the Birth Control Movement both in England and America was not only an American, but a physician. Dr. Charles Knowlton of Boston, Mass. wrote his “Fruits of Philosophy” in 1832, ↑almost 100 years ago.↓ This booklet circulated the globe ↑English-speaking world↓ for 40 years before it challenged conventional thought and puritanical bigotry. Finally, in 1878, ↑in↓ Bristol, England, an arrest was made and the contents of the booklet were decreed obscene. Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh refused to accept the magistrate’s verdict in the case. and In the name of freedom of the press ↑they↓ took the case to a higher court and won a victory that enabled the Birth Control Movement to advance and expand without legal obstruction until the present day.
When I came upon the horizon of the Birth Control Movement in 1919 ↑4↓ , I knew nothing of Knowlton or of the fight that Besant and Bradlaugh had made. ↑I thought I had made discovery. Childhood influence.↓
As a trained nurse working for many years in and around this city among all classes of people, I was constantly requested by women to tell them what could be done to avoid further and undesired pregnancies. Although a mother of three children myself, ↑I↓ had the usual negative attitude in this matter, ↑.↓ until I was Finally I was brought face to face with the question--When A woman whom the doctor and I had brought out of the Valley of the Shadow, asked us to tell her what she could do to prevent getting into a pregnant condition again. The doctor joked and ironically suggested that her husband ↑“↓ sleep on the roof. ↑”↓ She turned to me and pleaded, “you are a woman, you understand, you will tell me won’t you”? But I too turned away and left her to her fate.
Three months later I was called to take this case again. This feeble and distressed and agonized woman had turned to someone [else?] to help her terminate her pregnancy. It was fatal. I arrived too late.
I saw the three little children bundled off by kindly social workers to an orphan’s home. I saw the husband, bewildered and stunned by this tragic happening, made homeless and helpless in his plight.
The panorama of one social ↑one social↓ life seemed to pass before my eyes ↑.↓ and I saw as never before the vast network of philanthropic institutions erected for the maintenance and upkeep of human beings, whose fate was intimately bound up with ignorance of the knowledge of contraception.
I returned to my home that hot midnight in July and as I looked out over the housetops of this city and watched the dawn come up I knew a new day was dawning for me as well as for all womankind.
I announced to my family that I was through with all palliative work. I would nurse no more--I would never take another case until knowledge to prevent conception was available and accessible to the mothers of the poor. But “fools go where angels fear to tread”. I had no knowledge of the task I had set myself to do. I ↑first↓ started out to invade ↑search↓ the medical libraries ↑for practical information.↓ It was a shock and surprise to find almost nothing available for practical purposes. I went to Boston and then to Washington, D.C., even to the Congressional library. I employed ↑French & German↓ translators to help me. But after an almost fruitless search ↑of several months↓ I decided to go to France and there I got ↑Knowlton's Pamphlets &↓ information sufficiently practical to ↑help me↓ start a challenge to ↑ Sec 211 of↓ the Federal law. ↑name birth control not limitation↓
It was just about 100 years before this, when ↑that↓ the possibilities of a controlled population first seized the minds and imaginations of the Anglo-Saxon world ↑.↓ that Pioneers like John Stuart Mill and Francis Place scattered millions ↑thousands↓ of leaflets from the housetops of tenements to the tenants below. These leaflets contained information how and why the size of the family could be controlled. The leaflet was known as the “Diabolical Handbill.”
These pioneers, like Besant and Bradlaugh ↑half a century later,↓ believed in the magic of the printed word and thought that all that was necessary was to distribute the printed leaflets to the masses and the results would be achieved.
Experience is a [bitter?] ↑wise↓ teacher. I too believed that the working men and women should have pamphlets made available for their demand. I decided to challenge the Federal law which had been instigated by Anthony Comstock forty years before. It seemed to me it was entirely a question of the printed word and of freedom of the press. That was during 1912 to 1914-- ( [one word ] ). Then I went to Holland in 1915 and studied the technique of contraception under Dr. Rutgers of the Hague. I had spent a year in London in study under the guidance and direction that wise and venerable man Havelock Ellis.
After Holland--I became convinced that leaflets, pamphlets, books were not the medium through which overburdened mothers could be educated in Birth Control. That only by scientific instruction received from competent physicians and nurses in clinics established for that purpose and for that purpose alone ↑could the best results be achieved↓ . When in 1916 ↑after my involuntary exile↓ I returned to this country after my involuntary exilethe idea of clinics was central in my mind. It seemed to me that here at last was the practical solution to the problem, ↑--↓ vis.contraceptive instruction ↑to be↓ given by the medical profession in their public or private practice and ↑as well as↓ clinics for the poor whose social or economic status would not bring them into the realm of the profession otherwise.
I did not realize the gigantic obstacles to overcome before that idea could be converted into reality. Nevertheless, I plunged into activity. My free speech friends refused to help me ↑further↓ because I had now insisted that the medical profession must give ↑this↓ advice--That we must win their support, ask that they take over the entire responsibilities of woman’s reproductive problems.
I abandoned the Federal fight after my case was dismissed. (having been indicted on nine charges) and established a clinic in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. This was for the purpose of testing the New York State law Section 1142. I knew that Section 1145 existed but no physician could be found who cared to test the validity of the law. In the meantime and before I had reached the decision of opening the Brownsville clinic-- I, together with two social workers, took two women, one suffering from tuberculosis, and the other from syphilis, to every hospital in New York and Brooklyn to ask for contraceptive advice. In every instance the most courteous consideration was given us, offers made to treat the ailment ↑s↓ of the ↑both↓ women, but in all but one case, every hospital refused to give instruction to prevent conception. That one agreed only because the social worker was known to the doctors in charge. ↑(loose Charter)↓
The ↑average↓ physician did not interpret Section 1145 as his right to give such advice, especially in his public practice. Because of this confusion ↑refusal by Hospitals↓ , I opened the Brownsville clinic and within ten days no less than 488 mothers crowded into our limited quarters. Then the police descended upon us, closed our precious clinic, and called it a “public nuisance”. In Holland it was called a public utility. I was convicted and carried the case to the Court of Appeals. In 1918 a decision was handed down to us, justifying my conviction, but stating that “physicians lawfully practicing are permitted to give contraceptive advice for the cure or prevention of disease.” This was our first technical victory and the first ↑legal↓ interpretation of the law, which cleared the atmosphere for the medical profession and for us all. The first National Conference was held in New York in 1921. It was then that the fruits of the preceding years matured and ↑be it her↓ to the honor of the scientists, for ↑biologists, economists that they had the↓ courage and fearlessness ↑to↓ who stand staunchly behind us through all the ordeal ↑s↓ ↑from↓ of the Town Hall episode to the present day.
Nevertheless the situation presented itself that while the physicians ↑now↓ had the power to give ↑contraceptive↓ advice they were very confused and skeptical as to the efficiency of such methods as were available and known. ↑No literature, few devices available. Federal law. Europe.↓ It was important to collect and correlate the facts as to methods now in use.
↑In 1923↓ a Research Bureau was established in [illegible] with a physician in charge. We have now investigated over 13000 cases and an analysis of their histories is being made. We have seven physicians on our staff, 5 nurses as well as a social worker and an assistant to do follow-up work when necessary.
↑Dr.↓ Cooper’s book-- ↑published & available ↓ [gone?] into 10,000 for profession.
26 clinics in U.S.A.
$150,000 lately bequeathed to Los Angeles clinic.
500 physicians visited New York clinic. ↑10,000 expressed interest & solicited information↓
Medical Societies and Universities discussing subject.
↑4 supply houses.↓
The Birth Control clinic does not aim to compete with other social agencies. It does not act as a substitute, but it ↑must↓ precede almost every social program and must serve it as a base. Birth Control is not merely a medical question. It is a fundamental human need effecting every adult life. It affects also the lives of all children born in America, ↑it affects↓ all the our future of civilization. But perhaps more important of all it is fundamentally a ↑affects the↓ woman’s problems ↑, especially poor women.↓ And because of the ↑my↓ knowledge of woman’s needs ↑as a woman & a mother↓ , I entered the movement as a representative and protagonist of the overburdened women of this country. It is as a supplicant representative of womanhood as well as of motherhood that I appeal to you, the members of the most understanding and philanthropic profession of the world to aid us in our battle for a conscious and voluntary motherhood and the creation of a new ↑emancipated↓ race of thoroughbred children.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project