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Margaret Sanger, "The Heritage of Fear," March 1947.

Source: "Records of PPFA, Sophia Smith CollectionMargaret Sanger Papers Microfilm: Smith College Collections, S72:0540."

No published version found.


Margaret Sanger

Babies who are brought into the world by mothers afraid of childbirth and fathers who resent offspring face many more than the ordinary perils of life. They inherit a legacy of fear; they grow up in an environment of nervous and emotional discord; they have the immense handicap of hate to overcome.

It is not surprising that many of them never manage to overcome it. As a result society finds among them the great proportion of its delinquent children, its homosexuals, its psychotics, its sufferers from the psychosomatic diseases.

The old fashioned moralists used to say comfortably that once a child was born there was some sort of magic called mother and father love which automatically transmuted fear into affection, nervous anxiety into calm competence in the rearing of infants. Of course it is true that the attitude of the parents sometimes will change during the course of a pregnancy and that a child will be welcomed by the time he arrives. (It is equally true that the change may be in the other direction and a planned baby will be rejected by its parents because they wanted one of the opposite sex or for some other reason.)

But there are plenty of cases where the mother’s fear prevents her ever from being an adequate parent. Many of these cases never become dramatic enough to get into the statistics of crime, perversion or disease, but they are tragedies of equal magnitude.

I recall, for example, one family who seemed outwardly to have every chance for happiness. The parents were exemplary church members of high moral character, adequately if not lavishly endowed with worldly goods. But the wife’s fears of pregnancy were intensified by a difficult labor in bearing her first child. After that she avoided her husband’s affection. She complained constantly of illness in order to have an excuse for preventing marital relations. The husband was puzzled and annoyed, resentful of the children whom he blamed for his wife’s attitude. Every act of intercourse, it seemed to him, produced a pregnancy, and in eight years the couple did have three children, all undesired. The father was especially open in showing it.

In this home atmosphere there could be no room for the display of normally warm family affections. The children grew up feeling that their father was in the wrong and was worrying their mother constantly in ways which they could not understand. Their dislike of him hardened, and when the mother died, the children scattered and never were united with their father. A whole family had been embittered by the consequences of their mother’s fear, their father’s resentment and the ignorance of contraceptives which had prevented the couple from doing anything about it.

The obvious consequences of bearing children in spite of fear and through ignorance is harshness and neglect. Not so obvious but equally harmful is the parent who reacts to the unwanted child with a feeling of guilt, and in order to compensate for it manages to “spoil” the child by too much protection, too much babying, too much exposure to unhealthy displays of affection.

Miss Rhoda Milliken, head of the Women’s Division of the Washington Police Department, describes as typical of the juvenile delinquent a particularly difficult little boy who succeeded in carrying a brief career of theft, arson and petty property damage to a peak of shooting a night watchman. The child was eight years old at the time. The police finally got at the root of his trouble when he explained that he didn’t like his home because his mother had never wanted him anyway.

This particular problem was solved by finding the child a foster home where he really was wanted. His delinquent habits fell away from him, and he was converted into a reasonably good citizen.

Dr. Harvie Coghill, who has had exceptional opportunities for observation as director of the Children’s Memorial Clinic in Richmond, Virginia, reports:

“the study of clinic files abounds in evidence that responsible thinking in relation to planned parenthood is imperative today.”

Representative of these case was Billy, first referred to Dr. Coghill’s clinic at the age of nine by his school. Billy was a problem child to his teachers. It was found that his mother had tried to bring him up as a girl, and she could not be persuaded that her obvious rejection of a boy was bad for him. Seven years later Billy was sent back to the clinic by the Juvenile Court for homosexuality.

Another boy from the Juvenile Court had committed a sadistic assault upon a smaller child. The mother so openly resented him that she said she hated to go to his school because she did not like people to know he was her son.

Lucy was a clinic case because her parents had found her “spoiled, sucks her thumb, wets her bed, has nightmares, indulges in wanton destructiveness, temper tantrums, quarrels constantly, is jealous, lazy and engages in sex activities.” This was Lucy’s mother’s description. Neither mother of father had ever bothered to conceal from the little girl the fact that they had never wanted her, and she was taking a natural revenge. Dr. Coghill found that at school Lucy was entirely different.

There are other reasons besides fear for not wanting children, but the psychiatrists find frightened mothers at the back of a good many of their more difficult cases. Dr. O. Spurgeon English, Temple University psychiatrist, says:

“Let a child start life feeling unwanted, unloved and inferior, and there are no lengths to which he will not go to seek revenge upon a world which has neglected him and made him feel inferior. This can take the form of marital tyranny, religious or racial bigotry, industrial tyranny and sadism, or the despotic rule and destructive aggression of a dictator. On the other hand, let a man know peace and justice in his early home life and you have a man working to perpetuate a similar state of affairs in everything he touches.”

The mother who has been afraid of having her baby usually reacts by jealousy of the infant if it is a girl and nagging if it is a boy. The child usually responds either by a more than natural clinging to his parents in the hope of getting some affection if he is persistent enough or by rebellion in the form of tantrums, physical retaliation against his parents or other children, stealing or other mischief.

Many psychiatrists believe that the child is the chief sufferer from his parents’ failure to plan their family intelligently. Dr. Karl Menninger, for instance, says:

“The reason that contraceptive knowledge and counsel seem to the psychiatrist to be essential is based not upon considerations of the welfare of the adult but upon the considerations of the welfare of the child. Nothing is more tragic, more fateful in its ultimate consequences, than the realization by a child that he is unwanted. Where one child reacts to this in later life with an acute mental illness, dozens of children react to it in more subtle ways by developing self-protective barriers... This may show itself in a determined campaign or in a provocative program of attracting attention by offensive behavior and even criminal acts. Still more seriously it may show itself as a constant fear of other people or as a bitter prejudice against individuals or groups through deep-seated, easily evoked hatreds for them.”

One remedy for all this potential and actual misery is an increasing knowledge on the part of others, that they can control the number and frequency of their children. As more and more of them become aware of the existence of Planned Parenthood centers, as more physicians become trained in the application of contraceptive techniques, as both physicians and mothers realize that in only two states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) is the furnishing of contraceptive advice illegal -- as we achieve progress in education, the heritage of fear which is being handed down to our children will be dissipated.

All of us who have worked in the birth control movement know this to be true. We have seen for ourselves the lifting of an enormous burden of terror from women who had learned that they did not have to break their own health or ruin their existing children’s homes by living in the shadow of fear of another pregnancy.

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