Margaret Sanger, "Compulsory Motherhood," 5 Mar 1923.

Source: "Florence Rose Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections, S70:0778."

This is a partial draft of a speech Margaret Sanger likely gave in Connecticut, possibly for the Bridgeport Council of Jewish Women. at the Liberty Building's Business and Professional Women's Club Assembly Room. She was introduced by Council president Frances N. Capitman, president of the Council. For a related document see "The ABC's of Birth Control," 1923. For coverage of this speech see "Women Jam Hall to Hear Address on Birth Control," Bridgeport Courier, Mar. 6, 1923, p. 1-2.


[First six pages missing]

There are conditions in which a woman should not bear children at all. These conditions may exist either in herself or in the man to whom she is married. Such conditions are present when either man or wife is suffering from such diseases as tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea, cancer, epilepsy, insanity or any mental disorder, or is addicted to drunkenness or to some drug habit. While it is not believed that most of these diseases can be inherited, it is known that a tendency to disease can be handed down from parent to child. The increase in tuberculosis cases is attributed to the fact that the doctors keep alive to propagate their kind many men and women who formerly would have died before parenthood. They do not bequeath tuberculosis to their children directly, but the children probably inherit a greater liability to the disease than the children of normal parents.

Syphilis can be inherited--“unto the third and fourth generation.” There is no prenatal force which is so murderous for infants as this dread form of venereal disease. The babies in any syphilitic ward of a children’s hospital form a heart-rending spectacle--quite sufficient to convince any reasonable creature that breeding from a syphilitic stock is criminal as well as insanely foolish. As for the other diseases mentioned, and as regards also drunkenness and drug habits who can believe that parents so afflicted can produce and rear children who will be anything but a liability to the nation.

Besides these diseases which ought to debar both parents from reproducing their stock, there are many conditions peculiar to the woman which ought to be taken into consideration before she enters upon pregnancy. She ought to be old enough for full development. She ought to be healthy and not suffering from recent illness or over fatigue. If she is affected with heart disease, kidney trouble or pelvic deformity, she risks her life if she bears a child, and no such risk should be imposed upon her without her knowledge and her full consent ↑without her giving↓ her free consent.

It happens sometimes that a man and woman, both apparently healthy and sane, have defective children. In cases like this, however much they may desire parenthood, they have no right to impose the burden of such defectives on society, or to risk the injury that such children may do to the race if they in their turn become parents of defectives. The descendants of a single feeble-minded woman whose family has been carefully traced in Massachusetts, have been reckoned up into the hundreds with an expenditure of millions of dollars by society on court trials, prisons, and asylums for the army of criminals and defectives among them.

Leaving aside these cases where some form of disease makes childbearing unwise for the parents and anti-social for the nation, we have still to consider the normal healthy woman, and to decide whether in her case child-bearing should be left to chance. There are again two points of view from which to judge the matter--the point of view of society, and the point of view of the woman herself. Fortunately the decision from both points of view is usually in close agreement; because what is bad for the woman is usually bad for society; and society is only benefitted by the addition to its numbers of healthy, well nourished and well reared children.

The bearing of children by very young mothers is not eugenicwanted ↓ ↑desirable↓ . As soon as pregnancy begins the mother’s own development is arrested. The child mother is therefore stunted in growth bothin both in mind and body. She remains a child and never attains to the level to which her innate powers and inherited possibilities would have tended. Every breeder of animals understands this natural law, and keeps his young heifers or mares from breeding until they are grown and developed and ready for the strain. It is commonly asserted that women mature earlier than men, and that in oriental countries they are ready for marriage at a much younger age than in the United States. But it should be remembered that maturity of a kind comes with arrested development for either boy or girl, and the longer girlhood and later maturity of the American boys and girls who are given longer education and freedom from responsibility shed considerable light on the forcing process which has made women for so long out of really immature girls.

For the sake of the children, as well as for the sake of her own possibility of developing all that is in her, a girl should not become a mother before she is twenty-two years old. In America girls are not fully ready for motherhood before they are twenty-five. The children of a woman who has been given time to mature fully before she commences to reproduce will be better fitted for life and probably in every way better equipped than the children of very young girls. The mother will also have had the chance of developing to a higher level mentally and will therefore be better able to rear and train her children.

No woman should bear children without adequate intervals for recuperation. It is a tremendous strain to which the female body is subjected when it forms out of its own material the little life to which it gives birth. Following the birth are the months during which the nourishment of the child must be provided by the mother. Many women begin another pregnancy before the nursing period is ended, or at any rate immediately on its conclusion. There has been no time to lay up any reserve of strength in the mother’s own body and this process, repeated time after time, makes a woman old long before her years, drains her of health and strength and all capacity for enjoyment and reduces her to the drudge who loses all her influence over her swarming brood of children. The large families of such necessarily incompetent mothers are more likely to be a burden to society than an asset; and it is out of such homes that we get our supply of criminals and prostitutes.

So far we have considered only the health aspects. There remains the very important question of the economic status of the family into which the child is to be born. Overpopulation of a country is not at base a general or national question. It is the definite result of too many children in the family of Mr. and Mrs. A and too many in the family of Mr. and Mrs. B. It is all ↑the sum of↓ these little “too manys” that make the problem for the statesmen who see that there is no longer room in a country for all the progeny of its people.

There would be no such problem if ↑each↓ Mr. and Mrs. X had limited the number of their children to the few that they could afford to rear--to feed and clothe, to accommodate decently in the home of which they could pay the rent, and to educate to the point where the children would be able to make a good start in life for themselves. The number of children so reared would keep up the population of a country. If opportunities widened, if more wealth offered, if discoveries or inventions made possible the support of greater populations, the enlarged opportunities would induce parents to take advantage of them. Mother love and father-love can always be counted upon to be willing to undertake the labor of rearing children, if the burden is not greater than men or women ought to bear.

It might seem that the father, as wage earner, would be the one most concerned with the economic problem. Many a man is crushed under the weight of his ever-increasing family and relief would be to him the greatest possible blessing. One has only to compare the young man, entering happily and hopefully ↑buoyantly↓ on married life, full of joy in living, of hope and belief in himself and in the opportunities that the world will offer him, with the same man after ten years, with a houseful of children, who have arrived far more rapidly than his wages have increased. Probably his wife has become an invalid--worn out with overmuch bearing of children and with the labor of caring for them. He is hampered by debts, and unable to meet the expenses of so large a family. Instead of moving into a larger house now that he has a family of eight--six children in ten years is a common occurrence-- he is obliged to house ↑reduce↓ the expense for rent, and the pleasant little home that he could maintain until after the second child was born has been relinquished for a crowded and shabby dwelling in the tenement regions.

In spite of all this hardship for the man, it is the women upon whom the economic burden weighs most heavily. It is she who has to make a home out of the sordid tenement, and to find room for the living and sleeping of all the members of the family. It is she who has to make the scanty wages cover the ever-increasing needs of the family. It is she who first feels the pangs of hunger--even though she may all the time be carrying another new life under her heart. The pregnant woman should be well fed, or both she and the infant will suffer. But the mother will not and cannot feed herself sufficiently while husband and children go hungry. The man’s hours of labor are probably protected by his union rules, or by the general custom of the trade. But the hours of labor of the mother with a large family of little children know no limit and the frequent illnesses of children, brought up with insufficient food and other hygienic deficiencies, lengthen out these hours of labor until the day holds no more.

The economic problem is much wider than the individual family. It touches all the workers of the world. The servitude of labor in every nation is usually in direct proportion to the rate of increase of the population. In facing its own problems, labor has to some degree recognized the evil due to the competition of numbers; but it has never fully grasped the connection between the birth rate and the wage rate. It has never been willing to acknowledge that the only solution of its difficulties lies in the limitation of families, and that until this done, and done by the workers themselves, other remedies for low wages long hours, and oppressive conditions are palliatives. They may do considerable good, but the incoming horde of workers is ever threatening their ↑stability↓ and labor can never be secure in its victories until it is safe from this ever-increasing competition from its own children.

The theories of Socialists and the attacks upon capitalism have served to absorb the minds of the Labor leaders and to distract their attention from the basal cause of their poverty as compared with the wealth that they produce, and they seem to have overlooked the fact that no matter what benefits they could secure by a change in the industrial system all such benefits would disappear, leaving scarcely a trace behind, if they had to share them with ever-increasing numbers.

The trade unions, especially those of highly skilled workers recognize the relation between high wages and small numbers. They have steadily fought for the limitation of the number of apprentices, and for making conditions of entrance into their unions difficult. But these same men have apparently not recognized the general solidarity of labor, nor the fact that the uncontrolled entry into the ranks of labor of the younger generation makes ever more difficult the maintenance of the advantages they have secured for themselves. Even if their policy secures their own livelihood, it does nothing to open up opportunities for their children who must find places for themselves in the working world.

As for “free” labor generally--we have only to look at the state of the world after the close of the great war. Millions of the most perfect physically, the most capable and most intelligent of the young men of all the belligerent countries were killed or entirely disabled during the titanic struggle. There was a feeling during the war that the world would be short of workers, and that it would be necessary for those who remained to produce more per man then ever before. Yet within three years unemployment was the most striking fact that faced the workers, and in the winter of 1921-22, in America, the richest country in the world, and the a country which had suffered nothing from the ravages of war, there instances of more than a hundred men applying for a single job of unskilled labor, and other instances of men, highly skilled in some trade, who from no fault of their own were begging the opportunity to earn a little by shoveling snow in the city streets.

It is not only men who are competing against each other, and making more difficult the struggle for each of them. Large families mean child labor, and the children become the means of forcing down the wages of their parents. With a family of two or three children the self-respected working man can often afford to continue their education into the high school, and even sometimes to send them to college. When the children number six or eight, the eldest must necessarily go to work as soon as they can get their working papers, and sisters and brothers follow each other into the labor market at the earliest possible moment.

The more children a woman has, and the greater the burden upon her at home, the greater is also the necessity for her to go out and earn something to eke out the family income. She is needed at home. The children will suffer from neglect if she goes to work. But the family must eat, and the greater need takes precedence. If she is still of child bearing age--and it is the woman still bearing children, whose family, on account of the youth of the elder children, most needs the earning power of the mother. Her health will probably break under the strain. Such a consideration cannot deter her. She goes to work under the lash of absolute necessity.

These competitors in the labor market--the women and the children--are unskilled and unorganized. They are obliged to take low wages, in most cases any wage that the employer may offer, and thus their competition brings down the general level of unskilled labor. So runs the vicious circle--large families forcing more workers into the labor market, and more workers causing lower wages, which again increase the number of workers, through the forcing of women and children into the labor market.

It is hardly necessary to emphasize further the importance of the problem; but it is necessary ↑remains↓ to find the solution of it. Modern civilization has outgrown the crude checks on population offered by the customs of infanticide or abortion. These methods are still in use. If, in most civilized countries, parents have ceased to drown or expose their superfluous children, there are easy methods of allowing them to die for want of proper care or feeding.

Abortion is far more common than infanticide. It has been estimated that the number of abortions in the United States every year amounts to not less than one million. Every such operation is illegal, and being illegal, is not undertaken by reputable and well-trained physicians. Women, desiring to rid themselves of unwanted children are therefore driven to quacks and ignorant practitioners whose methods aggravate enormously the ill-effects and the danger of the operation. Abortion skillfully performed at an early stage of pregnancy is much less drain on the strength of the mother than the carrying of the foetus to full time and the normal birth of the baby. But abortion as usually performed on the poorer mother, by the ignorant and unsanitary practitioner is not only almost equivalent in its demand on the patient to natural birth, but also carries with it innumerable dangers to health and even to life itself.

In any case--apart from the question of its morality--abortion is a wasteful procedure. From the moment conception takes place the mother begins to give of her life and strength to the coming infant. Every day that pregnancy continues means just so much more of a drain on the mother. Even the most skillful abortion requires time and rest in order that the patient may recover, and all this represents sheer waste of ↑time and↓ life and strength. Abortion is condemned, because it is a destruction of human life already in existence and because it is a waste of the health and strength of the woman submitting to it. The answer to the problem is not to be found either in infanticide or in abortion.

The solution advocated through the birth control movement lies in the prevention of conception. Prevention carries with it none of the waste of infanticide and abortion. Nature provides in vast superabundance the possibilities of new life. She gives the man in his semen countless millions of living cells each of which under fit circumstances could fertilize an ovum. She gives the women thousands of ova, the greater part of which must necessarily [be aborted?] ↑fail to develop↓ into new human beings. The most prolific of men and women could use for reproduction only a tiny percentage of the cells with which nature has provided them.

To claim that it is perfectly right to allow a thousand ova to go to waste naturally, but wrong to prevent designedly the fertilization of the one thousand and first, is a proposition too absurd for serious consideration. To avoid child bearing by preventing the coming together of the male and female reproductive elements is what is done continually by the unmarried and widowed and by faithful husbands and wives absent from each other. To carry this process further and prevent conception when married people are living together is the problem that science is now solving, and in ↑with↓ the solution she is making man master of his own fate, as he is already master of almost every other natural force.

Until modern science made known the exact nature of the vitalizing seminal fluid and of the ova of the female, there seemed only one way in which the prevention of conception could be carried out. That was by continence--strict limitation of sexual relations to the very few occasions when procreation of a child was desired. There are still many advocates of continence as the only really moral method of birth control. Such advocates are making a demand of human nature which is beyond the power of the average man and woman living together in happy marriage. It is also making a demand which is positively immoral, if morality is tested by the good or bad effect of conduct on human welfare.

Sexual relations between men and women are the basis of family life. The more happy the marriage and the closer the affection and sympathy between husband and wife, the more intolerable the strain of continence enforced in order to avoid the bearing of too many children. The restraint which is necessary for such continence produces the most markedly evil effects on both the man and woman. The man probably suffers from such continence most severely, and there are few men of normally strong sexual emotions who can stand it for any length of time without developing nervous or even mental disorders. Continence may be possible and consistent with health for a very few abnormal men, and a small proportion of women. But it offers no solution for the great problem of the too-large family, because it is a course of conduct utterly impossible to enforce, and highly detrimental to health and happiness if it could be consistently adhered to.

Nor is it necessary to impose this hardship on married people in order that they may be enabled to control the number of their children. The only thing necessary is to prevent the coming together of the vitalizing male principle and the ovum, and means for preventing this are not beyond the reach of intelligent human beings. As yet there has been little careful scientific research into the subject and it may be that the methods hitherto used will soon appear crude and clumsy. The object of the advocates of Birth Control is not so much to teach any particular method of preventing the conception of the undesired child, as to arouse interest in the subject of over-population and to create public opinion in favor of restriction.

Compulsory motherhood is the corner stone of the subjection of women, and the subjection of women is the basis of all the evils of over-population. Birth is the woman’s problem, and she must be put in a position to solve it for herself. She must have the right to her own body, and the right to choose when she will bear a child. If this right be made absolutely hers, there will be an end to the bearing of children for whom the world has no room and no opportunities; there will be an end to the bearing of diseased and defective children, for even the most inferior mother has too much mother-love to desire to bring into the world a child who will cause her grief instead of joy, and be to her the deepest humiliation that a human being can know instead of the crown of glory of true and happy maternity.


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