Margaret Sanger, "Why Be Afraid of Marriage," Mar 1947.

Source: "Records of PPFA, Sophia Smith Collection Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S72:545."

No published version found. This article may have been followed by The Heritage of Fear, Mar. 1947.


By Margaret Sanger

Every young man and woman who get married establish a new unit in our democracy. For each such unit, as for the nation which is made up of all 35,000,000 of them, the only thing to fear is fear itself. Yet in all too many of our families, an unwholesomely pervading terror lurks. It poisons the relations between husband and wife, between parents and children. It is the fear of an unwanted pregnancy.

Very often these fears are by no means baseless. The state of a mother’s health make another pregnancy a dangerous, even a fatal adventure. Either or both parents may be suffering from an ailment which could be transmitted to the new child or would weaken his chances of life and strength. The couple may already have as many children as they can provide for adequately, so that another baby would handicap its brothers as well as itself. The couple may be poorly prepared educationally for the responsibilities of parenthood, since the rearing of human children requires more than animal instinct.

In all of these cases, any rational mind would conclude that the couple should not at this time conceive a new life.

But fear of pregnancy is not confined to these women, and failure to remove it lies at the root of the most frequently cited cause for family unhappiness, recriminations and divorce. Many studies show that sexual maladjustments are the chief reasons for broken homes, and fear of pregnancy can cause the most serious maladjustments.

The couple themselves often are not aware of the basis of their discord. The wife’s fears, which lead to complete disharmony in what should be the most perfect expression of their union, becomes more noticeable to them in the form of nagging, constant fault-finding, neurotic outbursts. At the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau in New York, where Dr. Abraham Stone and Dr. Lena Levine have been conducting a group therapy clinic for just such couples, the damage caused by fears of a pregnancy for which the couple is not prepared is plainly seen.

One wife at this clinic explained that her attitude toward sex had been built up by her mother and her sister so that she was totally unprepared for the realities of marriage.

“When you’ve heard ‘it’s not nice, it’s not nice’ all your life, you discover that the marriage service itself doesn’t change a negative attitude to a positive one,” she said.

No one knows just how greatly fear of an unplanned conception contributes to the frightfully large number of abortions performed every year in this country. The atmosphere of shame and guilt and illegality prevents any adequate studies of one of our most important problems, but it is estimated that one out of every four or five pregnancies in the country ends in an illegal abortion. This means something approaching a million a year, and the most competent authorities believe that 90 per cent of them are performed on married women.

It is axiomatic that the couple who plan for their children, who want them, do not end pregnancies in this desperate manner.

The late Dr. Hannah Stone once made a study of wives who came to the Maternal Health Center in Newark, New Jersey. Out of 71 women, 51 had anxiety neuroses of one sort or another, and the underlying cause was an intense fear of pregnancy. It was found that the husbands of some of these women were also neurotic, the reason being the use of unsafe and unsatisfactory methods of contraception in an effort to calm the wife’s fears.

Dr. Flanders Dunbar, in her book “Psychosomatic Diagnosis,” tells the story of a young woman whose cause is all the more significantly outlined because it is cited as an example of how disease follows anxiety rather than as a marital problem.

The girl had been greatly shocked by the death of her father when she was 16, and at 18 she married a man ten years older who had long been a friend of the family. Obviously she was seeking a replacement for the father in her emotional life.

Under these circumstances, she was very much frightened at the idea of having a child. By the time she was 27 she had developed a very serious heart condition which prevented her from doing her housework or even walking a few blocks. Yet, Dr. Dunbar found, there had to be one of two other factors than exertion present to bring on one of the young woman’s attacks. She got them only if she was waiting for her husband to come home at night or if she saw a pregnant woman.

To the psychiatrist, the neurotic fear of pregnancy was plain, although the patient rationalized her attitude by saying that she and her husband could not afford to have children. After some ten months, this wife achieved almost complete recovery. Part of it was the understanding which she achieved of her own state of mind. A year later she came back to the doctors to ask if it would be all right for her to have a baby.

“It’s funny,” Dr. Dunbar quotes her as saying, “I want one now when we have less money than we had before, and then I thought we couldn’t have once because of lack of money.”

From the purely physiological point of view, the physician comments, this woman’s pregnancy should have increased the symptoms of heart disease, but it did not and she was in due course the mother of a son. It is obvious that for both the parents and the child, it was a fortunate circumstance that he was born after his mother had overcome her terrors.

The obvious methods for wiping out needless fears of unplanned pregnancies are adequate education of young people before marriage, and adequate contraceptive services afterward. Neither are sufficiently prevalent as yet.

Education, the first point, gets a good deal more lip service than actual support. Yet there is ample evidence that it pays. Pittsburgh, for example, installed a system of sex education for high school students, the classes being conducted by both physicians and educators. In two or three years, the leaders in the Board of Education reported, the rate of pregnancies among girls in the public and parochial schools had been cut in half. the same knowledge which brought about this result is making those girls more understanding, less terrified wives and better mothers for the children they will bear in their maturity.

In recent years, the medical profession has made as great strides in its understanding of contraception as it has in its understanding of disease. Thirty years ago, a great many physicians scoffed at or deplored birth control. Today more than 96% of them, according to the most recent detailed survey, approve. Furthermore, so grave and authoritative a body as the Council of the New York Academy of Medicine has adopted recommendations which urge physicians to take the lead in establishing contraceptive clinics in hospitals and improving the quality of contraceptive advice given in private practice.

Physicians have joined the best leadership of the whole community--educators, social workers, clergymen, business and professional leaders--in recognizing that in the complexity of our civilization, family life has been exposed to some hazards which did not exist in a simpler stage of human development. To these unavoidable difficulties, Dr. Karl Menninger has sad, “there should certainly not be added the artificial barrier of ignorance.” And he added:

“For this reason, contraceptive knowledge should assuredly be in the possession of every adult. . . For ignorance, for lack of knowledge, for lack of facilities and counsel, there is in this enlightened century no excuse whatever.”

Planned Parenthood is the expression of that enlightenment. It brings to the whole family the essential quality which removes the fear of pregnancy. It means to the whole family emotional security and love for and between parents and children.

Subject Terms:

Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project