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Margaret Sanger, "Education and the Birth Control Clinic," 1930.

Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of CongressLibrary of Congress Microfilm 129:0061."


By Margaret Sanger

More than thirty thousand women have written to me, baring the secrets of their souls and the secrets of their bodies. Most of them are mothers or have been mothers. All of them love their children. Most of them love their husbands. All of them plead for help. They cry for deliverance from the torture of incessant pregnancy and childbirth. Through their letters, often misspelled and sometimes illiterate, I can hear the suppliant voices of this tragic chorus of mothers--a chorus ↑more moving than that of an↓ old Greek tragedy, a chorus which ↑reiterates endless its↓ monotonous plea for liberation. Despite the ever accumulating number of these letters, the inarticulate tragedies they recount vary but slightly. Over and over again I read the same tale - that of the young wife caught in the tangled mesh of involuntary maternity, the birth of the first child, the rapidly repeated pregnancies, the breakdown of health, the quicksands of poverty threatening to engulf the growing family, the death of the children, the helplessness, the hopelessness of life, the desperate supplication for help....

Painful as every one of these letters has been, they have compelled me to continue to fight for the legitimization of education in birth control. Opponents of the doctrine of contraception very often accuse us of fanaticism. Birth Control is a theory, they like to repeat, that is offered as a panacea for all existing social evils. Its practice is revolting, they continue, to the delicate sensibilities of the average woman. The menace of Birth Control, they glibly explain, lies in the dictatorship it would ↑attempt to↓ set up over marriage and parenthood. Based ↑as they are↓ on a complete and bland indifference to actual conditions in our workaday world, such arguments are purely hypothetical and academic and do not merit serious consideration. The one irrefutable answer is to be found in these letters from ↑living and↓ suffering mothers. How can our opponents, in the slang expression, laugh them off?

These letters express, in stammering and inarticulate style, the crying demand for instruction in Birth Control. They demonstrate, beyond the shadow of doubt, that Birth Control education has arisen in response to a real need of thousands upon thousands of wives and mothers. No one is trying to thrust the doctrine upon an unwilling public. No one is trying to corrupt young girls. No one is trying to destroy the institution of holy matrimony. ↑Even if we were depraved enough to wish to do so,↓ our hands are too busy ↑at the present moment,↓ in what for want of a better term, we can only describe as emergency measures in attempts to save from eventual destruction ↑the lives of↓ mothers who have already been grievously wounded in the battle of life. Emergency measures are imperative. But emergency measures are at the present moment not sufficient. To succor the fallen is not enough. We must have the courage and the foresight to plan a programme of prevention to circumvent the recurrence of the traditional and tragically extravagant method of bringing children into our world. For the traditional method is wasteful of everything civilization holds most precious: wasteful of the lives of women and children, wasteful of money, wasteful of time, wasteful of vital energies.

Fortunately we have discovered such a programme of prevention. Its nucleus lies in the Birth Control clinic. These clinics have already demonstrated their practicability and the tangible relief suffering women have derived from them It is not enough, however,. Merely to effect the removal of the various legal restrictions, now existent in Great Britain and the United States, and which hamper the complete functioning of such clinics, ↑this is not sufficient,↓ immediately necessary as this step is. The seed of this vital idea has been sown. Despite the rockiness of the soil and all the obstructions placed in its way, ↑this seed↓ has germinated. We must now insure its growth, its development, its eventual blossoming into maturity. To rest content with Birth Control clinics as mere sporadic, ameliorative, or local instruments of maternity welfare would be a sad confession of a limited vision of its innate potentialities.

There is ↑We hear↓ a good deal of talk nowadays of ↑concerning↓ the necessity of adult education. The Birth Control clinic, as I see it, can be developed into the finest and surest method of ↑a type of↓ adult education that is fundamentally educational and basically adult. ↑One↓ tenet of contemporary pedagogy, I believe, is that true education must be based upon the needs and the vital interests of the pupil. The first requisite of the educator is the discovery of those vital interests and needs, so that they may be directed or channelized into normal, sane and healthy paths. Only when he taps this reservoir of vital energy is the teacher at all able to hold the attention of his pupils. Only thus can he “e-duc-ate” them at all, (for the very word means “to lead out”). My thirty thousand and more letters from suffering mothers convince me that here at hand is a vast reservoir of deep, human interest demanding to be “led forth” out of the darkness of despair into the light of sane living. When society at large has taught the mass of women how to master and control their essential physiological functions,--in short, when it has taught them mastery of their own bodies--it may then reasonably expect them to show something more than a languid interest in the care and proper feeding of their infants and the hygiene of their homes. But while it ↑skips over this first and most important↓ in maternal education, while it refuses to base its teaching on the initial demand of its pupil, it need expect very little certainty of progress in the politer though less important arts of life.

By answering , resolutely and with infinite patience the fundamental demand of every adult woman, the Birth Control clinic places in her hand the key of self-mastery and self-direction. Once the young wife and mother has been sympathetically taught how she can master her maternal function, she is no longer a slave but a comparatively free woman. Her whole psychology changes. “Adult education” becomes, in her case, no mere catchword but an actual possibility. I have actually ↑myself have↓ witnessed this change of attitude in women who have personally applied to me for help and whose cases I have ↑followed↓ during a period of years. Incidentally, I may remark that nothing is more encouraging to the Birth Control worker that to watch this gradual change from a slave-mother into a free and developing adult woman. The efficacy of this type of true education - it has little or nothing to do with the veneer of “culture” of the women’s clubs -- is further demonstrated in the robust health of the children, brought into the world through a system of proper spacing, and therefore not crowding upon the overworked mother’s energies.

Not only by increasing the efficiency of women as actual mothers may the well-organised Birth Control clinic develop its educational potentialities; it may no less legitimately point the way to happier and therefore more enduring marital relationships. Our distinguished opponents may object that mere secular agency has the right to interfere in the private relationships of man and wife. But in the past church and state and society at large--including the press--have never been loath to give advice generously and gratuitously concerning the various roads to happiness in marriage, all of them omitting, strangely enough, any reference to specifically physiological aspects of the problem. The clinic, With its protective privacy and its specific consideration of each particular case and its scientific impersonality the ↑Birth Control Clinic can↓ with cleanliness and decency extend aid and constructive suggestions which would accomplish ↑much↓ more toward preventing marital shipwreck than all the glib generalisations of conventional moralists. Here, as in its other activities, the aim would be to prevent unhappiness and misery rather than to ↑alleviate↓ conditions that should never in any civilisation worthy of the name, have been permitted to develop.

Fear of pregnancy often acts as a powerful deterrent to satisfactory marital relations between husband and wife. The act which should be fulfilled as a physical and spiritual communion, sealing the bonds of matrimony, cementing mutual love, and periodically renewing the love between husband and wife, is ↑habitually↓ dreaded and avoided by women who have suffered agonies because of earlier consequences ↑an unhappy [situation?] ↓ . An ever A widening chasm of dissatisfaction is created. The young husband often seeks consolation outside the home. Yet even the restricted or limited relations do not prevent the coming of new children into the unhappy family. With its ministrations, the Birth Control clinic really makes possible strong and more enduring marriage relations, and in so doing, assures a firmer foundation for the founding of the family.

When we stop to consider the vast sum-total of misery, of unhappiness, of destructive and misspent energy, which is generated not of some petty misunderstanding, ↑irresponsibility↓ or maladjustment, of the cost not merely to the two individuals, but to society at large, we can but wonder why, in the very interests of human and societal economy, sexual education - no less than reading, writing and arithmetic - has not been made compulsory by law. Would it not have been more economical, in the long run than the vast, complicated administration of divorce laws, or the maintenance of founding homes and “welfare” centres?

Is my conception of the educational possibilities of the Birth Control clinic purely visionary and Utopian? If it is then any practical, constructive, and tested agency serving fundamental human needs must also be condemned as Utopian. On the contrary: modest and tentative as the activities of the clinics in their pioneer stage ↑have been↓ , ↑nevertheless↓ they rest upon a sound foundation and method. Just as the comparatively modern science of sanitation and public health developed its technique of prevention in combating epidemics and contagion, and just as modern medicine has gradually shifted its efforts from remedial measures to preventative therapy, so the Birth Control clinic points the way to philanthropy and organized charity toward what James Mill, something more than a century ago, called the drying up of one of the most copious sources of evil in society.

There is yet another important type of education which may be vastly aided through the agency of the Birth Control clinic. This type I would characterize as the education of the educators. Nothing is more dangerous nor more productive of fallacy than the habit of generalising concerning human nature on the basis of insufficient evidence. Immediate and prolonged contact with men and women is necessary. ↑Just↓ conclusions can be drawn only upon a thorough familiarity and comprehension of the problems of the common lot. The ordinary run of women resent--and I think very rightly resent--the prying into their private affairs by the so-called “social” worker, the agents of organized charities and philanthropies which their coldly statistical aid. While they have been ready and willing to accept such benefits as they can, ↑the poor↓ have often ↑concealed↓ with amazing skill and craftiness the real truths concerning their lives from the visiting agent. This is a fact commonly recognised by charity workers, who become adept in breaking down the walls of reticence. When they do, they discover, as many of them have confessed to me, that the chief cause of destitution has not been predominantly an economic one, but its organically bound up with uncontrolled fertility.

Now the clinic does not send agents or charity workers into homes where they are not wanted or invited. It does not even pretend to be a charity or a philanthropy. It avoids any tendency toward pauperising the poor or dictating any set rules of behaviour. Its administration is conducted on a basis of equality and mutual dignity. Realizing that we can never get at the radical truth without first inspiring confidence, the most successful clinics are now actually in the process of developing a new technique in social work. We are discovering, for example, heretofore unsuspected resources of intelligence and a deep-rooted desire for self-improvement among those very classes which had been glibly described as reckless and irresponsible. What had been lacking, what had universally been refused them by charity workers and social agencies, had been the very thing they were clamouring for--the means of preventing ↑undesired↓ pregnancy, and the opportunity to devote themselves to the upbringing of a few children, rather than to be swamped physically and economically, by an ever-increasing broad. signature

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