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Margaret Sanger, "A License for Mothers to Have Babies," 27 May 1934.

Source: " American Weekly, May 27, 1934Library of Congress Microfilm 130:0037."

Line drawings showing a permit line for would-be parents, a family tree tracking the well-born progeny of Elizabeth Tuttle and one tracking the children of a criminal, John McGurk, and its "disastrous consequences," and photographs of Sanger and "a half-wit," have not been reproduced.

A License for Mothers to Have Babies

A "Code to Stop the Overproduction of Children" Proposed by Margaret Sanger Based on Common Sense Instead of Sentiment

By Margaret Sanger

It has been officially reported that six million children in the United States are being supported by public relief funds. This tragic indictment of our social system indicates, among other things, that there has been an overproduction of babies, or, at least, an improper distribution of them, so that the couples who have the most babies are the very ones who are least able to take care of them.

While the N.R.A. strives through its many codes to increase employment and thus to raise the purchasing power of the people in general, it does not provide for lightening the burden of the parents by reducing the number of mouths that each wage-earner must feed or which the public must feed for him. While the N.R.A. has as its emblem the blue eagle, I am afraid that the six million pauperized children have as their emblem a stork that has the blues. America needs a baby code!! And I want to make a few suggestions that might be considered in the formulation of such a code:

Article 1. The purpose of the American Baby Code shall be to provide for a better distribution of babies, to assist couples who wish to prevent overproduction of offspring and thus to reduce the burdens of charity and taxation for public relief, and to protect society against the propagation and increase of the unfit.

The results desired are obviously selective births. By this I mean a selection based on the prospects for a successful and happy baby hood, childhood, and eventual citizenship. It would be an eminent gain for society if the number of births could vary in direct ratio to prospects for adequate care of children.

The development of latent powers and the mastery over Nature are responsible for whatever advances mas has made away from his primordial states of animalism and savagery. Out of an initial stage of ignorance as to what caused births, through a prolonged state of superstitions regarding these phenomena, the race has advanced into scientific knowledge of how to control births in other ways than by abstinence from natural living. But this knowledge is not universal. A fortunate few who have it are indifferent about sharing it with others, and there are large groups who deliberately and energetically strive to prevent its spread. It is this condition, doubtless more than any other factor, which has produced the six million children who are public charges.

More than one million women have written me, some of them tragic, pitiful letters, asking for advice on how to prevent unwanted additions to families already too large. According to our present Federal laws, it is forbidden to convey the desired information, either through the mails or by common carriers. Some of these women are tuberculous, some have heart trouble, some have no means of support. Others have equally valid reasons for wanting to know the technique of prevention, but if a physician were to write a letter, even to one of his own patients, giving advice where to go for contraceptive instruction, and were to mail that letter, he could be sent to the penitentiary for doing so.

A fight to remove such restrictions is being conducted by the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, of which I am president. Bills are now pending before the Senate and the House of Representatives, which, if passed, will permit the use of the mails and common carriers for contraceptive information and supplies intended for use by licensed physicians, chartered medical colleges, licensed hospitals and clinics, and by druggists in legitimate prescription business.

An extremely important factor in regulating population growth is education. Of no less importance is technical assistance. To meet these needs an extension of birth control clinics is necessary. At present there are in the United States about 157 birth control clinics, some of them restricted as to the help they may give. We need thousands of clinics, with greatly enlarged scope of activity. For this reason I suggest the following as the next article of the proposed Baby Code:

Article 2. Birth control clinics shall be permitted to function as services of city, county or State health departments, or under the support of charity, or as non-profit, self-sustaining agencies, subject to inspection and control by public authorities.

The important function of birth control clinics may in the future include advice for those who wish to have children, as well as for those seeking a limitation. I do not mean to imply that clinical or medical advice can at present be as effective in birth promotion as it is in birth control, but, nevertheless, I feel that the advance of physiology, biology and medicine may add notably to effectiveness in dealing with those who are barren and the sterile through functional disorders so that such persons may become parents when they want to do so. At any rate, I want to make the point that the tragedy of the babies is not so much that the grand total is too large, but that there are too many in families that do not want them, cannot take care of them, and should not have them. If education, technical assistance, and public opinion fail to limit the number of babies within certain groups of the population to the country’s capacity for taking care of them, then it may be advisable to adopt more drastic procedure. I hesitate to suggest what this might be, because so many of us Americans are afraid of any new forms of “Regimentation.” It will probably always be said that sex relations and parenthood are matters too intimate for any interference by public authorities. Of course, there is already a considerable amount of interference, or, if you prefer the term, regulation through marriage and divorce laws. I wonder if it will also become necessary to establish a system of birth permits. At present a marriage license is a birth permit, as well as a permit for a man and a woman to maintain a common household. Suppose, for purposes of discussion of something that may not prove to be practicable, we add the following clauses to the proposed Baby Code:

Article 3. A marriage license shall in itself give husband and wife only the right to a common household and not the right to parenthood. Article 4. No woman shall have the legal right to bear a child, and no man shall have the right to become a father, without a permit for parenthood. Article 5. Permits for parenthood shall be issued upon application by city, county, or State authorities to married couples, providing they are financially able to support the expected child, have the qualifications needed for proper rearing of the child, have no transmissible diseases, and, on the woman’s part, no medical indication that maternity is likely to result in death or permanent injury to health. Article 6. No permit for parenthood shall be valid for more than one birth.

All that sounds highly revolutionary, and it might be impossible to put the scheme into practice. But for purposes of discussion let the clauses stand. Suppose that we had such regulations, and suppose that couples went ahead and had children without permits and regardless of the law. Well, we should be no worse off in the matter of births than we are now. Certainly the regulations would not increase the production of children in the wrong families; the tendency would be the other way. However, a general respect for the law regarding the birth permits might be fostered by punishing transgressors. Society could not very well put a couple into jail for having a baby without permission; and in the case of paupers a fine could not be collected. How then should the guilty by punished? By blacklisting? By deprivation of certain civil rights, such as the right to vote? If punishment is not practicable, perhaps we can go the other way around and consider awards. If it is wise to pay farmers for not raising cotton or wheat, it may be equally wise to pay certain couples for not having children.

Considering this question leads us inevitably to the question of quotas. What is social planning without a quota? But a little thinking soon reveals the difficulty of establishing any numerical quota for births. It does not seem feasible to fix a given number of births as desirable for a county, or any other political division, during a particular year. Variations of birth rate within social classes might not affect the total number and yet might in one county improve the situation and in another make it worse. But perhaps something might be done by seeking a definite ratio between the birth rate and an index of child welfare, this index to be the opposite of what we may call child illfare. I suggest the following clause:

Article 7. Every county shall be assisted administratively by the State in the effort to maintain a direct ration between the county birth rate and its index of child welfare. When the county records for any given year show an unfavorable variation from this ratio the county concerned shall be taxed by the State according to the degree of the variation. The revenues thus obtained shall be expended by the State within the given county either in giving financial support to birth control clinics or in other ways calculated to improve the situation involved.

Assuming that the social workers and statisticians would not have serious difficulty in devising and keeping up an index of child welfare, the proposed scheme would, I think, be effective. The main result would be the creation of a strong community sentiment in favor of helping those couples who wish to avoid having children because they forsee that the children, if born, would be doomed to suffering. For the couples who are not willing to cooperate moral pressure would be brought to bear.

Finally, we have the problem of how to stop reproduction by those who are recognized as biologically unfit, or who have inheritable disease. According to the reports of experts made at the famous White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, there were in 1930 more than 10,000,000 handicapped children in the United States. This total included those improperly nourished,, the tuberculous, those with weak or damaged hearts, the crippled, blind, and deaf, those with defective speech, and the mentally retarded, delinquent, and dependent. A large proportion of these were doomed before they were born. Now that they are here we must take care of them at enormous cost. Billions of dollars must be raised every year by taxation or charitable contribution to pay for the treatment and care of individuals who have been handicapped from birth.

Many groups of the socially unfit, as for example the feeble-minded and the criminal, are not sufficiently susceptible to education or the moral pressure of the community. For such people sterilization is indicated. Some States already have sterilization laws, and others should adopt similar measures. While there must be ample safeguards in administering such laws so that the rights of the individual are considered, the paramount need is to protect society as a whole. Sterilization would go far in reducing human misery, not to speak of the financial saving in the upkeep of the unfit offspring. Therefore, I suggest the following clause in the Baby Code:

Article 8. Feeble-minded persons, habitual congenital criminals, those afflicted with inheritable disease, and others found biologically unfit by authorities qualified to judge should be sterilized or, in cases of doubt, should be so isolated as to prevent the perpetuation of their afflictions by breeding. I do not pretend in the above suggestions to have arrived at the formulation of a workable baby code, but my puzzling over the problem has convinced me that America needs such a code. I should be very much interested in hearing the suggestions of others.

This is the great day of social planning. We have come to believe in planning the production and distribution of goods. We plan methods of governing cities, States, and the nation. We plan jobs, and leisure-time activities, and vacations. We plan almost everything, big or little, except families. It can scarcely do any harm, and it may do a vast amount of good, to engage in thoughtful planning of our population, a population with a still larger percentage of happy families.

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Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project