Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control: Then and Now," 1944.
Source: " Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections, S72:458."
For earlier draft versions see "Birth Control: Then and Now," Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S72:452 and "From Folklore to Science," Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S72:470. No published version was found.
A young high school girl said to me recently, “What do you find to do with yourself these days, Mrs. Sanger, now that your fight for birth control has been won?”
After I’d assured her that the “fight” was still very much in progress I thought back to the days when it had been just that. Birth control, fifteen, twenty years ago was a lurid and sensational topic. Issues were clear cut and direct. The very term was one not mentioned in polite society, thanks to Anthony Comstock who had Congress classify it with “obscene, and filthy literature” in the legislative ban against it. Our struggles lacked the dignity they have today. Back in 1921, Harold Cox, brilliant member of the English Parliament and Editor of the Edinburgh Review was to speak with me at that early forum of free speech, Town Hall. Our subject was “Birth Control: Is it Moral?”
With astonishing directness Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes, through his emissary Monsignor Joseph P. Dineen, closed the meeting before it even opened. We had grown accustomed to opposition, from the combination of the Comstock group even after his death, with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but never had the interference been so brutally direct before. Time and again theatres, ballrooms where I was to speak were ordered closed before the meeting could be held. In city after city this occurred during the years, 1916, ‘17 and ‘18, but the climax was the now famous Town Hall incident which raised the issue throughout the country. Can one in public office use the power of that office to further his personal religious beliefs?
Mr. Cox and I were met at the steps of the Town Hall that evening by policemen, barred from entering and told, “There ain’t gonna be no meeting. That’s all I know.”
Juliet Barrett Rublee, one of the birth control pioneers, hurried with me to a phone booth, calling police headquarters. No one there knew of any orders to forbid the meeting. But still it was being stopped by direct orders of Monsignor Dineen to the police.
I wedged my way in a side entrance under the arm of a protecting officer who mistook me for one of the “press.” Harold Cox had by this time managed to reach the platform. An officer barred the platform steps to me. Harold hauled me up beside the steps, grabbed a bunch of flowers from a bewildered messenger boy and shouted to the audience, “Don’t leave! Here’s Mrs. Sanger,” thrusting the flowers which were to have been presented as a grand finale into my hand.
The vast audience, many of them important doctors and scientists, who had begun to leave their seats, returned. I began to talk but could not be heard. Ten times I tried to speak forcing the police finally to do what I wanted, deny me the right of free speech by arresting me.
Anne Kennedy, in charge of the meeting, tried to tell me what had happened before my arrival. When the house was half filled a man had come to the platform and told her. “The meeting must be closed.”
“An indecent immoral subject is to be discussed. It cannot be held.”
“On what authority? Are you from the police?”
“No. I’m Monsignor Dineen, the Secretary of Archbishop Hayes.”
“What right has he to interfere?”
“He has the right.” Turning to a policeman, “Captain speak up!”
“Who are you?” Anne demanded.
“I’m Captain Donahue of this district. The meeting must be stopped.”
We were taken to police headquarters in a patrol wagon and released on our own recognizances. The reporters wouldn’t believe that the Catholic Church had taken over police power and actually closed the meeting. A New York Times man called St. Patrick's Cathedral and asked Monsignor Dineen himself. “Yes,” he replied. “We closed the meeting.”
No representatives of the church bothered to appear in Magistrates court the next morning to explain why they had dissolved an important gathering of adult and intelligent men and women and sent them home like naughty children. However the press, intrigued with the idea of Rome running the police department, visited Monsignor Dineen en masse for an explanation. He said the presence of four children at the meeting was sufficient reason for police action.
It was pointed out to him that the four “children” he had spied were students of Professor Raymond Moley’s sociology class at Columbia University. They were adults sporting the popular new “bobbed hair.”
We had the hierarchy to thank for so publicizing our meeting that the second held shortly after, at the big Park Theatre in Columbus Circle was packed fifteen minutes after a single door was opened. Two thousand people, many of whom had never heard of birth control before Cardinal Hayes gave it nation-wide publicity, stood outside clamoring to get in, even climbing up the fire escapes. Orators were haranguing from soapboxes, men were pounding each other with their fists. Paulist fathers sold anti-birth control pamphlets.
The press kept the birth control publicity alive for weeks, the New York Times going so far as to headline the fact that Archbishop Hayes had closed the meeting. The most conservative papers were placed in the trying situation of defending birth control advocates or endorsing a violation of the principle of free speech, which “must always find defenders if democracy is to survive.”
The hierarchy had turned a simple unheralded meeting into a cause celebre, giving our movement more publicity than it could have acquired in years of proceeding simply and scientifically on its way impeded.
Eight years later in 1929, church officials again created nationwide publicity by their high-handed procedure in ordering a raid of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York City. Not only supplies but confidential records as well were seized. This invasion of the highly confidential relation between doctor and patient aroused a storm of protest, resulting in strong support from the medical profession and community leaders. I will never forget that morning of April 15th. I had been up all night with my older son Stuart, who was suffering with mastoiditus, his temperature running very high. My Secretary, Anna Lifshiz, telephoned and said, “The police are here at the clinic.”
For four years we had been giving help to poverty-stricken women, women broken in health, averting families tragedies by teaching distracted parents of many children how to space their babies. We were beginning to take heart; to believe that word of the good we were doing had spread in the neighborhood and outweighed the prejudices against us.
I hurried to West Fifteenth street. The shade to the glass door was pulled down; the door locked. I was let in by the plain-clothes man from the Vice Squad, and found detectives hurrying around in terrific confusion. Dr. Elizabeth Pissoort was outraged at the high-handedness of the raid; Dr. Hannah Stone was equally furious but very aloof, although this was her first arrest. “Isn’t it fantastic,” she remarked. “Only a few minutes ago a visiting physician from the Middle West asked one of the nurses whether we ever had any police interference, and the nurse told her, ‘Oh no, those days are over!”
Mrs. Mary Sullivan, head of the City Policewomen’s Bureau, was superintending the raid in person. But Patrolwoman Anna McNamara took a far more active part, consulting a list in her hand, turning over the case histories in the files as swiftly as her fingers could move. Many of these contained the personal confessions of women, some of whom had entrusted us with knowledge that their husbands had venereal diseases or were insane. Not even the nurses had been allowed to see them. Now they were the common property of the police department, to be used by them in whatever manner they desired.
Mrs. McNamara taunted me when I told her she had no right to touch private medical files. She had come to the clinic some time before for contraceptive advice, using the name Mrs. Tierney, and had received it after examination by two physicians, who found her suffering from rectocele, cystocele, prolapsus of the uterus, erosions, and retroversion.
I shall never forget the color of Mrs. McNamara’s face when she heard this medical testimony recited several days later in Magistrates’ Court at the hearing. She was totally unprepared for this embarrassing revelation of her own organs. Months later she returned quietly to Dr. Stone to inquire if these findings were true and as serious as they sounded.
A month after that dramatic hearing, the defendants were discharged. Again public indignation had been aroused at the high-handed methods used against us. Police Commissioner Grover A. Whalen, still trying at that time to ferret out Arnold Rothstein’s murder, had termed the raid a “routine matter”, until Dr. Linsley Williams, Director of the Academy of Medicine, wrote a letter of protest. Then he apologized. Mary Sullivan was temporarily demoted.
I was curious about what had caused the raid in the first place, and employed the Burns Detective Agency to sift the affair. Approximately fifty percent of our cases were being sent by social workers on the lower East and West Sides, a conglomerate of all peoples and classes, including Irish, Italians, and other Catholics. So many had benefited and told their neighbors that others also were asking of their agencies how to get to our clinic. Catholic social workers, at a monthly meeting with officials of the Church, had sought guidance in replying to parishioners, and the ecclesiastics had been shocked to find that a clinic existed. Catholic policewoman had been summoned, Mary Sullivan had been chosen to wipe out the Clinical Research Bureau and Mrs. McNamara selected for the decoy.
Again the raid was a tactical error by the opposition. Doctors, throughout the land, the world in fact, are highly sensitive about the sanctity of case records. On this issue they were firmly united in protest, no matter what they thought individually about birth control. Our calendars at the reopened clinic were filled three weeks in advance. None of our records was ever returned, but Roman Catholic patients whose cards had been seized reported that they received anonymous threats by telephone that if they continued to go to the clinic their private lives would be exposed.
The Magistrates Court hearings and final decision in our favor was front page news in all the papers, the publicity continued for many months as it had in the previous case.
These are but two of the many dramatic episodes in the “fight” for birth control. It’s still going on. Many important battles have been won, medical, legislative, but there is still so much to be accomplished.
On the credit side, instead of a single clinic fighting for its life, there are now more than 800 throughout the country. Women who need knowledge of child spacing can find it in every state save those strongholds of the Catholic hierarchy, Massachusetts and Connecticut. But while outmoded laws have been invoked to close the clinics in these states, the South so frequently scorned as “backward,” has begun the move to place child spacing where it logically belongs, with its public health programs for maternal care. North Carolina was the first state to realize that something had to be done to lower tragically high infant and maternal death rates. Mississippi is the eighth state to fall in line and give state aid in family planning to those mothers who need it most since they cannot afford the services of private doctors.
Another change has taken place. In a Fortune magazine poll of 1943, of women between 20 and 35 years, 84.9 approved of planned parenthood. Of the Roman Catholic women polled at this time, 69% encouraged by the anonymity of the poll registered approval. The clinics everywhere have as always a large Catholic registration. But more than that the church, cornered and moved by the obvious need and desire of its own members for some means of family planning, had to set its seal of approval on the “Rhythm Method,” that complicated and often inaccurate means of discovering a woman’ short cycle of fertility. By avoiding intercourse during this period she hopes to prevent the birth of children. So the church has approved the idea if not the actual methods which medical science endorse for family planning.
Birth Control, the medical means by which planned parenthood may be achieved, emphasizes what those close to it always considered its greatest aim; the planning of healthy babies. In the planned parenthood movement, added stress is being placed on the encouragement of those physically and economically able, to have more babies. Aid is being extended increasingly to that estimated one family in ten of the population which suffers from infertility. More and more planned parenthood centers now provide treatment for childless couples or refer them to specialists able to help them. The Planned Parenthood Federation at 501 Madison Avenue, New York City lists in its directory, along with birth control services, the small but growing number of fertility clinics throughout the country. As a guide to the unhappy couples who have been unsuccessful in having a child the Federation offers in its literature a new pamphlet “To Those Denied a Child.”
It is an interesting fact that more than a third of those couples seeking cures for infertility are rewarded by having babies of their own, and that people who want children are gaining the confidence to seek expert assistance. The male partner for many years scorned the idea he might be responsible for his wife’s inability to reproduce. Sterility to him wrongly implied impotency. Now with men showing as great an eagerness for perpetuating themselves as women always have, it has been found that the man is responsible in about one third of the cases.
Governments throughout the world are increasingly conscious of social engineering, alarmed at imbalances in the birth rate, with the poorest families, in each land, those most handicapped in economic resources, health and education, carrying the major burden of bearing and rearing more than their proportion of the next generation’s children. This is one of the many problems planned parenthood will have to help solve in our war-torn world.
There are so many things I might have said to my little high school friend who believed I could rest now with the “fight for birth control won”. Does she realize what a long way we have come merely in the acceptance of the subject as a legitimate health topic? Such a short time ago no “lad” discussed birth control; it belonged with the other sex taboos of the age, which I feel sure we birth control pioneers helped to dissipate. When I feel gratified by our successes I remember that the struggle will never be won until every mother in this land and in the world has the democratic right to plan her children for that time when her physical strength and economic resources will give them the best chance for survival. The fight will not be won until we have brought this health measure out of the category “obscene”, until censorship is no longer the whim of postal clerks who can keep vital information from the mails. The latest move in these days when marriage counseling is sorely needed has been the ban of Dr. Abraham and Hannah Stone’s excellent “Marriage Manual,” long a best seller, from sale in mail order catalogues.
We must make every effort to unshackle medicine from church domination. After a long and persistent struggle we have severed the state from this domination, ↑but↓ unfortunately we find that the Catholic church can still dictate in essential matters of health. It is time the weight of public opinion convinced government health agencies that the problems of reproduction should be treated as purely medical problems. When this happens every state will follow the lead of those eight southern states who have added child spacing to their public health programs.
We pioneers cannot completely relax and sigh with satisfaction, until planned parenthood, has ceased to be a cause, for which one has to fight, and become an accepted right of women throughout the world. Then and only then can we relax and say, “The battle is won.”
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project