Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control--A Changing World Attitude," 2 Apr 1937.
Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of CongressLibrary of Congress Microfilm 174:74."
This Philadelphia radio address was opened with the following announcement: "Margaret Sanger, leader of the birth control movement will debate with an imaginary opponent, Mr. X, on the question "Will birth control promote family welfare?". Mrs. Sanger is the president of the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control and director of the oldest and largest birth control clinic in America, the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. Mrs. Sanger. . . "
In debating with Mr. X on the question Will birth control promote family welfare I am discussing a matter of deep concern to everyone. For love of home, of family life, of children is a love which we all share. You may be wondering about Mr. X. It is hard to find an actual opponent of birth control. There is disapproval, misinformation, prejudice. But when it comes down to cases, it is almost impossible to find a man or woman who will voice that disapproval in open debate.
Let me say at the start that I have the utmost respect for the opinions of others, and that I want others to have that same respect for the opinions of others, and that I want others to have that same respect for mine. Here I want to lay at rest the first misconception about birth control. It is permissive, not obligatory. To put it plainly, no one is being forced, or even persuaded to use birth control. No one is being coerced. But. . . and the but is important. . .people who want to use it, people who plead and beg for this information should not be denied.
Do people ask for birth control? The records of over three hundred birth control clinics in all parts of the country show that they do. The thousands of letters which I receive every year are mute and tragic evidence. Last month the editor of a woman’s page of a mid-western newspaper published a letter about birth control in which the writer stated that mothers in need of this advice should write to me. Within three days more than 500 women had opened their hearts to me, had sent letters asking for help. And lest you think that this was perhaps only a local need, I want to make clear that these letters came from almost every state in the union.
From the drought section of Montana, from the fruit valleys of California, from the mill towns of New England and the mining districts of your own state, Pennsylvania, came stories which wring the heart and fire the mind to action.
A mother mother ↑woman↓ of twenty-five, married at 15, and already the mother of seven children; a young bride who wants to postpone having a family until her husband is able to take care of children; a worn out mother of ten, who has been bearing and rearing and burying children for more than twenty years. These are the people who ask for birth control advice.
Birth control means using the discoveries of science to plan and control, to take this subject out of the realm of blind chance into the realm of reason. It means spacing children, so that they are not born too close together. When one pregnancy follows another without the mother having time to recover her strength the children and the mother suffer. Maternal and infant mortality mounts. Our maternal death rate is a national disgrace. It is higher than that of any other country recording vital statistics, with the exception of Scotland, Lithuania and Northern Ireland. More mothers die every year in America than in Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland. . . and what makes this shameful record truly tragic is the fact that two mothers’ deaths out of three are preventable.
Out of every three women who die from causes related to childbearing, two could have been saved. Too frequent and too many pregnancies are responsible for a large number of these preventable deaths. And abortion, that tragic substitute for reliable birth control, is the cause of 25 per cent of maternal deaths.
Let me pause here to clear up another misconception. The records of birth control clinics and of hospitals show that it not the young and unmarried girls who seek abortions and are responsible for the thousands and thousands of criminal cases. The number of abortions performed yearly in America is conservatively estimated at 700,000, and some authorities place the figure as high as two million. It is married women with three or more children who, in the main, take this desperate way out. Death and permanent injury to health, and sterility are the aftermath. How much better for mothers, for their children, for family welfare, if these overburdened women had known how to prevent pregnancy, rather than destroy life after it had begun. How much better from every point of view if women were given reliable birth control advice.
Do women plead for birth control advice? Yes.
Will reliable advice cut down our disgracefully high maternal mortality rate? Yes.
Will it SAVE children’s lives? Again the answer is “Yes.” The Children’s Bureau of the United States Government made a study, some years ago, of the causes of infant mortality. It wanted to find out why babies die, so that something could be done about it. The Bureau discovered that when children are born one year apart 147 out of every thousand die before they are one year old. But when there is a two year interval between births, this number is cut almost in half. By giving mothers information so that they can wait even two years between one birth and another, all these infant lives can be saved. And as the interval increases the picture brightens.
Each one of you who is listening to this talk probably know of some family where tragedy has talked, where the young mother has been cut off in her prime, where babies have died needlessly. Would the welfare of THAT family have been promoted through birth control?
↑ Birth control is immoral. It is tampering with nature, it is giving license to the pleasure loving. Birth control will destroy our civilization, it will lead our nation along the downward path, as similar indulgence caused the fall of Greece and Rome. Birth control is responsible for sterility, it brings about insanity. ↓
I am not a very good ventriloquist, so I must announce that this is again Margaret Sanger speaking. You may think that the objections I have put into the mouth of Mr. X are exaggerated. But they were voiced as recently as last week in a California radio debate, and they are the echo or the objections that are retarding the development of birth control as a public health measure. I say retard, please note, not obstruct, for I believe that nothing can obstruct the truth. I believe that though misunderstanding can slow things up, it cannot permanently stop something as fundamentally right as birth control.
In the radio debate to which I referred a moment ago, one objection was raised, so fantastic, that I could not believe it were it not in the stenographic record. “Better a baptized idiot than a child unborn,” said the opponent of birth control. You are doubtless drawing in your breath in amazement. Well, to every man his own opinion, as I said in the beginning. Let those who believe ↑hold↓ even this amazing and truly awesome view have the right to their own opinion. But for the rest of us. . we need not be and should not be coerced.
“Birth control is immoral,” says Mr. X. It is immoral to save women’s lives so that they may rear their children to adulthood? Is it immoral to produce happy, healthy wanted children, who can be born into homes able to welcome them?
“Birth control is tampering with nature?” says our opponent. So is heat for our houses in winter, clothing, cooked food, medicine, all civilization. I need not enlarge this point. I think you will all agree with me.
To the charges that birth control is responsible for sterility and insanity, I can answer emphatically: there is not a shred of evidence to support this view. Hospital and clinic records, cases in the files of private physicians fail to disclose any evidence that reliable birth control methods as prescribed by physicians ever cause sterility. Quite the contrary is true. Bootleg and quack methods can due immeasurable harm. Abortion, which could be largely wiped out by birth control, is a major cause of sterility.
In regard to insanity. . . again the opposite is true. No one has ever been able to estimate accurately the number of amount of hereditary insanity which could have been ↑be↓ avoided , if people with hereditary taint had known ↑knew↓ how to keep from having children. We are seeing now, in America, a splendid campaign of public education on the control of syphilis. “Conceive only when we say you may,” the doctor tells afflicted women. This means that women must be given birth control information, as one of the fundamental ways of controlling syphilis, which sends so tragically large a number of people to our hospitals for the insane.
↑“Well, over and above all these things, which are perhaps matters of opinion, here is a straight fact. Birth control is illegal. The law forbids it.”↓
But Mr. X is wrong. We are celebrating this year an epoch making victory in the birth control movement. On November 30th, 1936, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the second Circuit unanimously upheld a decision of the lower courts, liberating the medical profession, hospitals and health agencies from the legal restrictions under which birth control had suffered.
In 1873, more than sixty years ago, please remember, Congress passed the so-called obscenity laws prohibiting the use of the mails and common carriers, meaning express, for items which were then considered lewd and obscene. To the eternal disgrace of that period, and of Anthony Comstock who urged the law on a bewildered Congress, articles and information relating to the prevention of conception were put in this category. It was a serious crime to send such articles or information through the mail or by express or to import them.
The birth control movement spent years of effort to right this mistake. For with the law thus tangled and confused, many doctors hesitated to give advice, hospitals and dispensaries were afraid to include this service in their activities.
I saw clearly many years ago that we would never reach our goal until this matter was clarified. With this in mind I formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, to seek an amendment to the obscenity statute, exempting physicians from its restrictions. Support both in Congress and in the outside public grew by leaps and bounds. Each year we introduced a bill and each year we gained more and more support.
Finally there came the chance of clearing the matter up through a test case. Some birth control materials, sent by a physician to a physician for research purposes, were held up in the Customs. The Court decision in this case has given the medical profession what we were seeking through legislation. The rights of the American physician in regard to birth control have been established.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project