Warning: Use of undefined constant editmode - assumed 'editmode' (this will throw an Error in a future version of PHP) in /home/mspporg/sangerpapers.org/includes/docheader.php on line 49

Margaret Sanger, "International Aspects of Birth Control," Dec 1920.

Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Microfilm, LCM 129:743."

This article was drafted for The Nation, but was never published.

↑International Aspects of Birth Control↓

↑by Margaret Sanger↓

In the present attitude of continental Europe toward the problem of birth control there are a number of illuminating contrasts. The change in the attitude of France ↑in regard to re-population↓ is especially indicative of the corroding ironies of "victory." It is decidedly worth while, for instance, to compare the present official policy with the opinion and general practice before August, 1914. Then ↑we↓ discover that the present policy and propaganda of the French government is practically identical with that of the Imperial German government before its downfall. But even more illuminating is to discover the differences between the new militaristic, imperialistic, reactionary ↑and "victorious"↓ France of today, in this matter of "repopulation", and the grim necessities that confront her defeated and starving neighbors.

Surely it is not without significance and well worth detailed study to find that France, where, as Mr. Robert Dell recently informed us, reaction and militarism have most firmly entrenched themselves since the Armistice, has renewed her great campaign for "repopulation," and has moreover passed drastic laws forbidding the sale and circulation of contraceptives, and is making the most desperate efforts to stamp out all birth control agitation. Of course it was only to be expected that there would come, as one of inevitable symptoms of war-hysteria, this cry for a larger population. Even before the curtain had fallen on the vast pageant of disease and death and devastation, the wily imperialists took ↑militarists had taken↓ advantage of the country's emotional unbalance to set the ↑its↓ women to the task of aimless childbearing. Thus are sown the surest and most fertile seeds of future wars. One must not be blinded to the sinister Machiavellian wisdom of this policy except that ↑nevertheless,↓ with the passing of the present hysteria, it is certain that the French will return to long established habits of prudence and foresight. France, as a nation, has too long been devoted to the principle of "the self-determination of small families."

However, it is a fact that the birthrate has become enormous. French maternity hospitals have been so crowded that women have been delivered in the corridors, the courtyards, the lingeries, even in the outsheds. But in spite of this unprecedented increase in the birth rate, the chauvinistic champions of "repopulation" are gradually discovering certain bitter truths about the futility of indiscriminate fertility. This ↑The↓ answer to this fever of frenzied fertility came with the recent publication of the infant mortality rates. We learn that out ↑of↓ every thousand babies less than one year old at St Pol, 509 have died; at Halluin, 507; at Mars-en-Barzoeuf, 414; at Lille, 294; at Rouen, 251. In Paris, in the words of an impartial authority, "half the children die before they are even aware of their existence." The statistics for children of two, three, four and five years, are scarcely less appalling. It is a simple enough matter to bring children into this world: it is more difficult to keep them here.

One French champion of "safe, sane and rapid repopulation" has somewhat belatedly pointed out that the propaganda can only be rendered fruitful by the universal establishment of prophylactic and sex-hygiene clinics, so that the health of both parents and children may be assured and the rate of survival be increased. Even the advocates of repopulation are thus almost forcibly led to the very door of birth control; and yet they refuse to recognize how organically interwoven are the ideas of sex-hygiene and birth control. Despite this self-evident truism, the present reactionary government of France has passed drastic laws against birth control and has, let us hope but temporarily, effected the suppression of Le Neo-Malthusien , edited so long and courageously by Monsieur G. Hardy. With the first change of government, it is almost certain, the laws will be repealed. It would take at least twenty five years of their enforcement to reveal ↑any↓ possible results. And In France at least, it is practically impossible to enforce such legislation. Nevertheless, one must recognize the tremendous sweep of this reaction in favor of a large population.

Today, France has practically adopted the policy of the old imperial Germany. There, in a country "saturated" with an over-dense population, with a high birth rate and ever increasing population, birth control was put aside ↑discouraged↓ by the imperial government. The dire consequences are painfully evident today. Yet evidently the politicians who are today directing the destinies of France are blind to any possible connection between overpopulation and war, and with war, starvation. Otherwise, how could they now urge their own people to increase and multiply and thus increase complicate the economic and social disorders ↑of the world.↓

It is was the boast of Imperial Germany that the children which were brought into the world at the state's behest were ↑well↓ cared for by the state with ↑the government, that↓ under the supervision of the state ↑they↓ were given a sound education ↑as well as the benefits of health & welfare agencies↓ and ↑and were↓ sent out into the various countries of the ↑world↓ as highly efficient and valuable citizens. The difficulty was, the protagonists claimed, that the State which had expended so much time and energy in the training ↑invested much in the health & efficiency↓ of these citizens was so often deprived, by the very limitations of her boundaries, of the fruits of their labors, from which alien and ↑often↓ rival governments derived the benefits. This, I believe ↑found↓ , was one of the arguments advanced to support the policy of expansion and new territory. We know today that these children who were brought into the world under ↑with↓ the encouragement of the state left it under the same conditions.

Today in prostrate Germany and Austria one finds a more desperate and therefore less hypocritical state of affairs. There the only imperialism that remains is the imperialism of King Hunger. While little children are starving, there can be no ↑sincere↓ cry of "repopulation." Hunger dictates its own grim laws. I do not mean to recount here the monstrous details of the ravages of starvation, malnutrition and tuberculosis upon great populations of Central and Eastern Europe. The pitiful condition of the women and children has already been impressed upon America by those who are attempting to administer to their needs. For me, the most significant point is that the mothers of Germany and Austria are finally and gradually awakening to a consciousness of the crime of bringing children into a world that is so woefully unprepared to receive them. It is When you stop to think that you need too that the ↑little↓ victims of cedema, rachitis and tuberculosis who manage to survive these disastrous days must ↑will↓ tomorrow become fathers and mothers, if their race is to continue, And the one ↑you↓ realize ↑that↓ if some malevolent God ↑Being↓ had deliberately decided upon the dwarfing and stunting of the human race for generations to come, no better method could have been devised for its accomplishment. Perhaps it is the painful realization of this that has crystallized into the movement to legalize, within certain well-defined limits, the right to abortion.

In this movement to annul the laws prohibiting abortion, and in the legislation now before the Reichstag, we find the very opposite to the French cry for "repopulation" and the most eloquent sign of Germany's desperate outlook. It is truly legislation dictated by King Hunger, and much as one can understand and sympathize with the spirit which undermines ↑prompts↓ it, it is a rather clumsy and deliberate evasion of the problem of birth control. In trying to find out why even the leaders of the movement to legalize abortion were opposed to the method of birth control, I came upon some interesting facts.

Before the war there had sprung up, both in Germany and Austria, a lively birth control or Neo-Malthusian agitation, carried on in Germany by Dr Julian Marcuse, Dr. Bernstein, and a number of laymen of the "extreme left". They were bitterly opposed by the entire Social-Democratic movement. They were attacked by such outstanding personalities as Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and others who have since become notable in the socialist Communist movement. Both in Germany and Austria, I am compelled to record the ↑ Marxian ↓ Communists have bitterly opposed the principles of birth control, and have actively combatted the propaganda. It is a strange fact that despite the ever increasing difficulties of life since the overthrowal of the monarchies, that this antagonism has increased. It has even led to the suppression by the "revolutionary" authorities of a small birth control periodical published in Berlin by Dr. Goldstein.

The root of this antagonism lies, of course, in the Marxian opposition to the theory of Malthus, which carries with it the ↑unpleasant↓ implication that the working classes may be responsible for their own miseries. The German Marxians have always been the bitterest antagonists of Malthus; and none of them, as far as I know, has ever tried to reconcile the Marxian idea of revolution with the principles of neo-Malthusianism. Thus unwittingly, it seems to me, in encouraging unrestricted ↑or "natural"↓ propagation, they ↑have↓ played into the hands of the imperialists and [one word illegible] ↑militarists.↓

Even today, the militarists ↑in Germany↓ are calling loudly for more babies, even though millions of them are dying and starving. Thus, unless the world can somehow prevent it, may recommence the same old cradle competition, that competition in conception that is inevitably followed by ↑the↓ competition ↑in↓ armament.

The most decisive action against this folly I found among the Syndicalists, whose aims and ideas were explained to me by their leader Rudolph Rocker of Berlin. With a territory much more restricted than before the war, with new millions sent back from Alsace-Lorraine and Poland, with a total population even greater than in 1914, it is now an absolute necessity for Germany to reduce the ↑her↓ population, according to the Syndicalists, whose propaganda is in a large part, devoted to spreading the idea of birth control. If the new militarism is to be combated, they claim Birth Control is the first important step. They aim deliberately at the substitution of quality for quantity, at the complete avoidance of any possible taint of militarism, and in developing gradually a country devoted to philosophy, music, arts and science. The inspiration for this movement is French. It is a hopeful sign to realize that this movement ↑idea↓ is growing steadily and has enlisted many of the finest spirits of modern Germany.

Immediately after the "revolution," was organizedva movement aiming at the abolition of the laws prohibiting abortion and seeking to bring scientific abortion within the reach of hopelessly afflicted mothers. Paradoxically enough, many of the leaders of this movement, notably Johann Ferch, formerly a typesetter and now an author, are opposed to the doctrines of prevention of conception.

I made prolonged and widely varying efforts to probe this contradiction. After questioning a number of eminent gynecologists and many of the hopeless and desperate mothers, I have come to the conclusion that this opposition on the part of officials and physicians is rooted in the conviction that the moral prerogative must remain in the hands of the State and the community, rather than to be given to the mother-to-be herself. Maternity, in this view, is only secondarily the woman's affair. Birth control, they claim, gives women too great a power of ↑over↓ the future of the country and the race. To give her a knowledge of birth control is to give her a power that can never be recalled. "I am willing to check our population during this period of intense struggle," an eminent specialist confessed to me, "but merely as a temporary expedient. To give German women a knowledge of Birth Control would be to delegate to them a dangerous power, a knowledge they would not give up when better conditions return." It had never entered the mind of this scientist that it might possibly be far more dangerous to the future welfare of his country to withhold this knowledge from the women, that possibly even the present plight might in some way be connected with over-population and unrestricted breeding.

In Austria, both the Church and the present state are of course, absolutely opposed to the doctrine ↑principle↓ of birth control. There, the propaganda is carried on with unflinching courage only by the extreme left of the labor movement. Socialists, I am reliably informed, are either indifferent or openly hostile, while the "communists" are openly and absolutely opposed to the idea. Here at least is the one point of agreement amongst these warring factions!

Midway between the illogical and desperate extremes represented in the current attitude of ↑official↓ France on the one hand and ↑official↓ Germany on the other, the liberal open-mindedness of Great Britain is one of the most encouraging signs of the times. In England there is a "wide open" discussion of birth control, allied as it is with the problem of over-population, state pensions and emigration. And there is growing up an enlightened and intelligent public opinion ↑of every shade↓ supporting the doctrine. In a recent address before the Eugenics Education Society, Dr. W. R. Inge, Dean of St. Paul's, a man of unquestioned intellectual integrity and one of the most prominent figures of the Church of England, declared: "While eugenists understand those who say that birth control is forbidden by God, they have no patience with those who say that we can have unrestricted and unregulated propagation without disaster." He added that the present tax-paying classes of Great Britain were being taxed out of existence. Soon therefore, the dean argued, the working classes would have to pay taxes for the maintenance of the unfit and the incompetent; and that they would then see to it that all their fellow workers would adopt, in regard to their families, the trade union principle of "restriction of output." The point is that this was widely quoted in the English newspapers. Papers of every variety of opinion are continually advancing arguments in favor of birth control. An enlightened public opinion of this type is indicative of a critical and healthy resistant attitude toward hysterical imperialism. Freedom of expression is absolutely necessary, it seems to me, on the subject of birth control, and [one word illegible] it is in England that one finds the most encouraging frankness on the subject, an open-mindedness that is well illustrated in an article by Edith Shackleton, published by the London Daily Sketch, in which she goes so far as to write: "Fathers and mothers today are under the illusion that the rest of us believe that they brought their children into the world from a high stern sense of public duty--which is about as reasonable as to expect us to believe that they found them under gooseberry bushes." Compare this cool and over ↑almost↓ cynical sanity with the "repopulation" balderdash that finds its way even into such well-informed French dailies as Gustave Téry's l'Oeuvre .

England is at last awakening to a consciousness that the problems of population, parenthood and birth control are closely interwoven and practically inseparable. This is sufficiently evident in the second report of the National Birth Rate Commission, recently published under the title of "Problems of Population and Parenthood" (Chapman & Hall). In this report we find ample evidence of the weakening ↑collapse↓ of the case against birth control in Great Britain, since the objections to the doctrine ↑principle↓ and practice are ↑mostly↓ based upon outworn theological dogma and traditional moral prejudice. But ↑Among↓ the more alive and sensitive intellects of the English clergy there are to be found defenders and even eloquent champions of the doctrine ↑principle.↓ To me the most significant movement in England is has been the gradual and now rapidly crystallizing spirit of true statesmanship that is coming to the defence of a much maligned and little understood principle ↑subject↓ . It is not too much to say that ↑in England↓ Birth Control is now enlisting in its service the most representative minds and enlightened public opinion.

In this country we are too apt to look upon these problems of parenthood and population as something that only remotely and vaguely concerns us. [one word illegible] . One cannot return from [two words illegible] opening to the realization that ↑One cannot view the European situation honestly without coming to the realization that↓ more and more directly that these problems are our affairs. ↑immediate concern.↓ We know that in her reconstruction and in her imperialistic activities France is looking to us for financial support and backing. We know that the European Relief Council is appealing for contributions for the three million five hundred thousand starving children of central Europe. We have received eloquent and moving appeals from the Near East. On top of all this, our president ↑has just↓ appointed a nation-wide committee to collect funds for the thirty million Chinese who are starving to death. Whether we wish it or not, the world has become one community; and in this community [three or four words illegible] the less crowded and more properous countries are called upon to ameliorate and relieve the condition of the overcrowded and starving. Vicariously, through our rich men and women, our profiteers and politicians, ↑bankers & politicians & our generous emotional sympathies↓ it is we who are indulging in this carnival of [two words illegible] ↑-like↓ international charity. Our emotions are stirred-- the symptoms of the disease.

I do not mean to criticize the altruistic and humanitarian impulse that prompts our response. But since neither the League of Nations nor any of the other distinguished statesmen who are at present directing the affairs of this planet find the matter of any importance, it is the duty of some one to point out the danger of unchecked and unrestricted propagation in any part of the world. We may restrict immigration; we may pass exclusion laws; but the problem will ↑always↓ come back to us in another guise. We find ourselves still facing the vast uncontrolled and unceasing activity of the blind instinct of reproduction, struggling for world supremacy. Altruism, sympathy, sentiment, love--whatever you choose to call it--is making feeble ↑and futile↓ efforts to administer to the miseries created by this unrestricted propagation, ↑which is only↓ occasionally checked by famine, a war or a plague. Reason is looking on, ↑idly↓ theorizing on the situation. [three words illegible] Until intelligence directs ↑and controls↓ not merely the effort to relieve the world miseries but [three words illegible] ↑also the universally↓ unrestrained propagation that lies at the root of most of them, that we alone may least expect the inevitable cancellation of any world progress ↑is inevitable↓ .

Subject Terms:

Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project