Margaret Sanger, "First American Birth Control Conference Opening Address," 11 Nov 1921.
Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Sophia Smith Collection S67:800."
This speech was given at the opening session of the First American Birth Control Conference, held at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City. Sanger was introduced by Edith Houghton Hooker, Chairman of the Sessions.For a partial draft version see the Library of Congress Microfilm, LCM 129:0698; for a slightly different published copy see Birth Control: What It Is, How it Works, What it Will Do: Proceedings of the American Birth Control Conference Held at the Hotel Plaza, New York, November 11, 12, 1921 (New York: 1921), pp. 14-18. For other speeches and comments made at this conference, see "Summary of the Second Session," "The Use of the Pessary," "Comments," "Introduction for Harold Cox," "The Morality of Birth Control," and "Closing Remarks." For a transcript of the entire session see Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S67:0881.
Madam chairman, and ladies and gentlemen: I am glad to join with Mrs. Hooker in her welcome of you here today. I cannot tell you what this conference means to me. I cannot tell you with what enthusiasm we have all been inspired by the results of the letters and the answers that we have had while we have been getting up this conference. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the assistance and help of all those of you who are here, and the thousands of others who have written us and encouraged us to go ahead with this great work and at this particular time.
The idea in calling together this conference was to bring together not our old friends and advocates who have been putting the idea of birth control forward for the last few years, but the idea has been rather to bring to us new people, new ideas, of those who have been working in social agencies, those who have been working in other groups for the same result, namely, a better nation, a better people in our nation.
And so we rejoice to have you here who are representing other social activities, health agencies, and we have thought and we hope that you will give us new ideas, as we hope that you will listen attentively to what is being read here, and that you will also be inspired by some thing to help you further your own work and your own cause.
We are today confronted in the United States with various problems. One of the serious problems is that the fit and healthy members of our community are carrying the burden of the unfit members of the community. Everywhere we look we see that poverty and large families go hand in hand. Everywhere we look we see that we for the past quarter of a century have been putting the energy and the efforts of our healthy and fit elements into bricks and mortar. We have been building up environment while we have paid very little attention to the quality of human life. We have erected palatial residences for the unfit, for the insane, for the feeble-minded, and for those who should not be born, to say nothing of being able to carry on the next generation. We are confronted with this problem and everywhere we see that the sentiment of our people has developed far beyond human intelligence.
We are in a condition of society today, not only here but practically in every country in the world, where the masses of the unfit have propagated to such an extent that our intelligence is not able to grasp the conditions or to cope with the conditions which this has created. Now the time has come when we must all join together in stopping at its course, misery, ignorance, delinquency and crime.
And that is the program of the birth control platform. That is what the birth control movement intends to do, to stop at its source these qualities which are making for a weakened and a deteriorated race.
There have been two instincts which have ever guided mankind in its destiny. Those instincts are hunger and sex. The instinct of hunger has received consideration in practically every civilized country and man has adapted his institutions to meet these needs. But the instinct of sex has been ignored. Now I claim, and most of us who make a study of this subject know, that this instinct is just as deep, is just as fundamental a thing as the instinct of hunger. It cannot be crushed. It cannot be ignored. It cannot be denied, not can it be thwarted by denying it. But we must understand it. We must recognize it, and we must in recognizing and studying it, we will then utilize it as we utilize music and prayer for our higher powers and for a higher illumination. (applause)
The question that confronts us is, is it desirable that man shall control this instinct. Is it desirable that this instinct may be satisfied without increasing the population of the world? Is mankind to be benefited by obtaining control over this instinct? And is it desirable that in satisfying it we shall say whether offspring shall be the result of this or not. The question we will try to answer today is, is it desirable to obtain control over this instinct? Is it desirable that the unhealthy, the unfit, the feeble members of the community shall propagate their kind and fill the world with their offspring? Is it right for these to populate the world, as has been done, or shall some stringent war measure be taken to stop this if we are to survive. After discussing the desirability of these questions, the next question to be discussed will be the possibility of bringing this about.
We all know that knowledge is power. Man has a right to all knowledge. Ignorance is not a virtue, nor is it a safeguard against immorality. If there is knowledge which enables man to control birth, or to control conception, then it is only right on principle that he should have all knowledge, and he should be able to obtain that result.
The proceedings of this conference will be to discuss these two subjects. We must first establish the principle of the right of birth control. We must encourage this principle to be accepted by other agencies and to have this placed into the programs of other agencies for peace, for social betterment, and for a better world.
The idea of birth control is not new. It has been advocated almost from the very earliest history of man. We know that Plato and Aristotle advocated it. It has been advocated by practically all the greatest philosophers and thinkers of all times. But the idea in the past of limiting their numbers was a little different from that of today. The method which was employed to limit numbers in the past has been infanticide, abortion, mainly, while today it is preventing conception. This new idea is now making headway in practically every country in the world. The birth control movement as it stands in the United States has been the greatest instrument for circulating this idea, this modern scientific idea in every country in the world. So far we have groups in China, in India, in Japan, in Mexico, in South America, to say nothing of groups in Germany, England, Scandinavian countries, Italy, Russia and Hungary. This new idea is taking its place in the social body, in the constructive platform of all of these countries, and I think for that we can say that America has been the leading country in this new idea of birth control. (applause)
This is the first birth control conference ever held in this country, and we have a very elaborate platform, and our aims, as we understand them, are based upon scientific principles. We intend to organize the thinking populations of this country. We intend to have our groups, active groups, in every city in this country. We know, most of us, that where people have privately believed in birth control and have agreed with us on the side, yet they have not had the courage to come out and speak in public or to work for this principle, and the time has come when this must be changed. The time has come when we must make the intelligent members of our community come forth and work with us and join with us in making this a national program. We want to have the restrictive laws, both federal and state, repealed, and we stand very definitely--our group--that doctors should give this information. We stand very definitely on that principle, that this question of giving information is not a question of free speech, but it is a question of scientific, technical knowledge. (applause) We want the medical profession to give to women the most scientific data obtainable. It was only a few years ago, you know, that obstetrics was considered good enough for any woman to take care of. A woman who had to have a child was allowed to have her neighbor come in to deliver her. The medical profession did not consider that that was dignified enough for them to look after. And now the same thing has been considered of contraception, and we are going to make this function of the control of birth a scientific one. We are going to put it into the dignified role of science and that is where it belongs.
Our aim is definitely to repeal these laws so that the medical profession may give to women at their request knowledge to prevent conception. We believe that with intelligent guidance and with the assistance of the intelligent members of our community we can bring this about in a very short time, but we need your help. We need your courage. We need you to come out and stand with us on our platform. We also want your guidance, and your assistance, and your suggestions. There is not any of us that think we know it all. We know that you in your special lines have experience by which we can benefit and we want your cooperation. In other words, we want to join together to make this country the greatest country in the world. We want to make this a country where its inhabitants and every member of the community is an independent, self-reliant, courageous individual who will take their place in this nation, and this nation in its turn will take its place among the forward nations of the civilized world. (applause)
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project