Margaret Sanger, "Shall We Break This Law?," Feb 1917.

Source: " Birth Control Review, Feb 1917, p. 4 Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections, S70:0769."

For duplicate copies see Margaret Sanger Microfilm C16:106.


Shall We Break This Law?

Margaret Sanger

"All our liberties are due to those who, when their conscience has compelled them, have broken the law of the land."--Dr. Clifford.

If some disease were found to be undermining the health and destroying the vitality of the women of the United States, I think it is safe to say that the manhood of the whole country would rise up and strive to abolish the plague.

And yet the men of this land are to-day shielding and fostering just such a disease--a disease which sends mothers to an early grave, condemns wives to ill-health and invalidism, causes children to be born feeble in mind and body and crushes strong men under the weight of a burden they never asked to carry; a disease which eats into the very vitals of family life, tearing husband and wife asunder, crowding the divorce courts, depriving children of a mother's care and robbing maternity of its keenest joys; a disease which brings in its wake poverty, unemployment, child labor, prostitution, war; a disease sprung from ignorance of the means of preventing conception, an ignorance enforced by a law so vicious, so arrogant, so inhuman that thousands of earnest men and women are to-day asking themselves: "Shall we obey this law?"

No law is too sacred to break! Throughout all the ages, the beacon lights of human progress have been lit by the law-breaker. Moses, the deliverer, was a law-breaker. Christ, the carpenter, was a law-breaker and his early followers practiced their religion in defiance of the law of their time. Joan of Arc was a law-breaker. So, too, were George Washington and the heroes of the American Revolution and, in more recent times, John Brown of Ossawatomie, Henry D. Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker and many more whose sturdy refusal to respect an inhuman law helped to emancipate a race and set free the chattel slaves of the Old South.

The law to-day is absolute and inexorable--it has even set itself above justice, whose instrument it was intended to be.

In earliest times, there was no elaborate code of law; there was but a simple idea of justice. As the race moved forward, its conception of Justice kept pace with the changing standards and customs of the times.

As society became more complex, a caste arose whose duty it was to administer justice. In the course of time, however, the law grew up out of their decisions and accumulated a stolid mass of outworn tradition, until to-day legality has become so encumbered with lifeless relics of the past that the courts no longer express living social standards and the ideal of Justice, but merely the dead weight of legal precedents and obsolete decisions, hoary with age.

The whole function of Justice has become petrified and encrusted with the barnacles of antiquated tradition. The people's will has been diverted into blind channels leading always further and further away from the fundamental principle that the will of the people is the supreme law.

Civilization is dynamic; our judicial system is static. The race has progressed, but the law has remained stationary--a senseless stumbling-block in the pathway of humanity, a self-perpetuating institution, dead to the vital needs of the people.

Humanity and justice have been displaced by a legal despotism, the chief concern of which is the protection of established interests.

Woman has always been the chief sufferer under this merciless machinery of the statutory law. Humbly she has borne the weight of man-made laws, surrendering to their tyranny even her right over her own body. For centuries she has been the helpless victim of excessive child-bearing. Meekly she has submitted to undesired motherhood.

Incoherently she has spoken in the past. Her protests have been in vain. Her supplications have fallen on the deaf ear of the administrator of law. Her petitions have lain unheeded under the cold eye of the legislator, caught in the network and quagmire of politics.

Against the State, against the Church, against the silence of the medical profession, against the whole machinery of dead institutions of the past, the woman of to-day arises.

She no longer pleads. She no longer implores. She no longer petitions. She is here to assert herself, to take back those rights which were formerly hers and hers alone.

If she must break the law to establish her right to voluntary motherhood, then the law shall be broken.


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