Margaret Sanger, "Testimony Before the United States Senate on S.4582," 13 Feb 1931.

Source: " Birth Control Hearings (Washington, DC, 1931), pp. 2-5, 76-84 Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Collected Documents Series C15:736."

Sanger testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on February 13 and 14, 1931.


Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate Seventy-First Congress Third Session

S. 4582 A bill to Amend Section 305 (A) of the Tariff Act of 1922, as Amended, and Sections 211, 245, and 312 of the Criminal Code, as Amended.

February 13 and 14, 1931

Statement of Mrs. Margaret Sanger

Mrs. Sanger. Mr. Chairman, and gentlemen of the committee, the essential object of the committee on Federal legislation for birth control in supporting this bill, Senate 4582 is to amend the existing Federal laws which prevent the dissemination through the mails of information relating to the subject of contraception. We want to make it possible for mothers have safe, scientific information to prevent conception so that they may regulate the size of their families, so that they may space out the number of children in the family in consideration of the mother’s health, of the father’s earning capacity, and the welfare of each child.

I want to say, Mr. Chairman, that this is the first time that this bill, this particular kind of bill, has been introduced in the Senate. It has been introduced by Senator Gillett, the chairman of this committee, and it may be referred to by the speakers following as the “doctor’s bill,” or the “birth control bill.” I want to say that the reason it has been referred to as the doctor’s bill is to distinguish it from other pieces of legislation on the same general subject, especially one bill that was introduced in Congress in 1925, and known as the “open bill.” That bill aimed to take the whole subject of the prevention of conception out of the law, while this bill only asks that exceptions shall be made in this law, or in these laws, for physicians and for the regular practice of the medical profession.

We not only want motherhood to be a conscious and controlled function but we want parenthood to be something other than the consequences of a reckless, careless shiftlessness. We want parenthood to be regarded as a fine commission, a noble trust, a splendid assignment, and it can be so considered only when it becomes a conscious responsibility.

In the laws, which this bill, Senate 4582. will amend, contraceptive information has been classified with obscenity, pornography, and abortion. Information concerning contraception does not belong there.

Section 211 of the criminal code was passed by Congress in 1873 and at that time very little was known of the technique of contraception. Gradually knowledge of its importance has grown. The need for better information, for more scientific data on this important subject has been recognized. And there has gradually arisen in this country a movement in favor of birth control. We find to-day that parents consider birth control information not only a health measure, not alone an economic expedient, but a principle of social welfare by which the future advancement of the individual and the country itself is safeguarded.

These laws which we are trying to amend have made no exception in their prohibitions for literature of a scientific character. Nor have they made an exception for the physician in his regular practice, or for hospitals or clinics, or for patients of these hospitals or clinics, or for the general and proper distribution of medical supplies. These laws have been the means of suppressing properly authorized scientific literature on the subject of contraception because no publisher will jeopardize his freedom or risk his reputation in publishing books when there is a law against their circulation.

These laws interfere with the importation of articles, and of the results of research which is undertaken in other countries. Such data and such results of laboratory research would be of great assistance to the medical profession of his country in the proper functioning of their profession.

These Federal laws interfere with the proper dissemination of information to prevent conception in 47 States of this Union although there are already laws in those States enabling physicians to give advice to patients in their regular practice, and there are in this country to-day over 50 legally operating birth control clinics distributed over 12 states. These birth control clinics are medically established and medically directed, and have been organized solely for the purpose of giving contraceptive information by the medical profession.

I should like, Mr. Chairman, if I may, to present for the record the names of the clinics, and their locations.

The list, which was appended to the end of the days testimony, was omitted by the MSPP editors.

And, also a summary of the laws of the various States concerning the subject.

The bill that we are advocating asks that the Federal laws which it would amend shall not apply to any licensed physician or hospital or clinic when the desired information has been published in the agency, medical society, medical school, or medical journal, nor shall it apply to reprints after such publication. This bill also asks that the name and address of any physician, hospital, or clinic where such birth-control advice is legally given may be sent through the mails. Under the laws now, especially section 211 of the Criminal Code, it is a crime for me or for anyone to send to a mother, a sister, or relative situated in any of these States the address of any clinic lawfully operating in that State, even though such an individual may be poverty stricken or diseased, even though she may have a right under that State law to have this information for her health and for her family happiness. The Federal law makes it a crime for anyone to send through the United States mail the address of a physician or a clinic where such information may be obtained. This bill asks that there be an exception in these cases.

Mr. Chairman, we believe that this bill as presented is constructive, logical, and conservative. There is nothing in this bill which makes it mandatory or compels anyone to use this knowledge of contraception. There is nothing in this bill which makes any physician read such or which makes anyone apply for such literature, but we do ask for the thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of mothers who in many cases are inarticulate to ask this for themselves; we ask that these mothers have the right to go to their physician, to apply to their hospitals or clinics, and get proper scientific information suitable for their individual requirements.

We want no wholesale distribution of indecency or pornography or obscenity. This bill, which we are advocating to-day, as it is presented, leaves the law exactly as it was, except that we remove the subject of the prevention of conception from the clause relating to indecency, obscenity, and pornography, and place it in the hands of the medical profession, where it rightfully belongs.

Most of us believe that the original object of these laws was to prevent the dissemination of pornographic literature through the United States mails and to restrict its entrance into this country. We fully concur in the prevention of the distribution of pornographic or obscene literature. We believe, however, that is it unfair to classify medical and scientific information or literature in this class and to do so places a great hardship upon the general practice of the medical progression and upon our welfare agencies. The effect of keeping these laws on our statute books is to increase the surreptitious circulation of unscientific or harmful information which tends to increase crime and to multiply abortions.

The laws, in effect, have already been responsible for a great deal of harm, and I think if we could measure the injury that has been done to women, and were aware of their damaged conditions, physiologically and mentally, the harm far outweighs the good that these laws have accomplished.

It is roughly estimated that since this law was established in 1873 over 1,500,000 mothers have passed out into the great beyond from causes due to child bearing, and we know today that the subject of contraception is intimately associated with the deaths of mothers and affects our maternal mortality.

It is also roughly estimated that, since that law was passed, over 15,000,000 children have passed out of life during their first year of infancy, many of them were children born in conditions of poverty and their mothers’ ill health. A great majority of them may have been living to-day had their mothers had a chance to recuperate from the ordeal of previous pregnancy instead of using up the vitality of the child before it was born.

We, Mr. Chairman, believe that the effect of keeping these laws on the statute book is to keep alive hypocrisy, evasion, and a general increasing disregard for laws. We believe that there is nothing to be gained by keeping such laws on the statute books when they are known to be inimical to the personal health of mothers, to the family happiness, and to the general welfare and progress of the Nation.

Mr. Chairman, may I also present some of the protests of the medical profession, medical associations, and other organizations against such laws?

Mrs. Sanger: I would like to make a few remarks. There has been misrepresentation expressed here his morning based upon a certain undated circular, sent broadcast to various organizations, within the past week or two by an organization represented here this morning, the National Catholic Welfare Council or Conference. It has been the cause of a great deal of malicious confusion, and first I want to read into the record a letter from the Bureau of Jewish Social Research of New York City in answer to this circular. It is directed to one of the representatives who sent it, and the letter, of which I have a copy, reads as follows:

Mr. Burton: I think we should know what the statement is that was made by the National Catholic Welfare Council.

Senator Gillett: Does that statement appear there?

Mrs. Sanger: I have it here .It is an official statement by the National Catholic Welfare Council.

Senator Gillett: That may be filed then.

Mrs. Sanger: It is far too long to quote it.

The reply to the circular is as follows:

The reply to the circular has been omitted by the MSPP editors.

Mr. Chairman, that letter represents the feeling on the part of a very large number of social organizations from whom we also have heard. I have not attempted to enter the statements into the record because yesterday the chairman stated that he would not include all of the letters that were sent on the subject.

Just as briefly as I can I should like to comment on the discussion that went on this morning.

The inference has been, and it has been constantly stated, that the bill that we are proposing would open the United States mails and common carriers to pornographic and obscene literature. The circular to which reference has been made included such a statement. I deny that allegation. I think that such statements wilfully misrepresent what this bill specifically intends to do. It is untrue to say that the bill would practically remove all existing restriction. We only ask that the medical profession in this country should have the right to receive contraceptive articles and literature, and that medical journals should have the right to issue such articles, which are almost always of a scientific nature. I should think that the medical profession would resent the statements made here this morning that the articles which we are asking to have legally sent through the United States mails are articles that might be designated as pornographic and obscene. I should think that was and should be considered an insult to the profession.

I want to read to you two of the resolutions that have been passed by branches or departments of the American Medical Association. The American Medical Association itself has not taken a stand on this bill, but I wish to point out that two of its principal departments or sections have put themselves on record in favor of the principle of this kind of legislation. The first resolution was passed by the section on obstetrics, gynecology, and abdominal surgery at Atlantic City, May 29, 1925:

Resolved, That we hereby recommend the authorization of existing laws wherever necessary so that physicians may legally give contraceptive information to the patients in the regular course of practice.

Further, the American Gynecological Society at the same time indorsed the following amendment to the existing Federal laws: “Standard medical works, standard medical and scientific journals, and reprints therefrom, which contain information with reference to the prevention of conception are not nonmaliable under this section.”

Now, Mr. Chairman, these are the two departments or sections of the American Medical Association most intimately concerned with the question of contraception, with child bearing, and with mothers’ and womens’ health.

When the American Federation of Labor went on record, as far as the letter read this morning was concerned, you will note that it referred to a bill of 1925, a bill that was not sponsored by the committee that supports Senate bill 4582 now. This is the first time that this bill has ever been introduced in the Senate, and the opposition of the Federation of Labor, according to the letter and the statement made here this morning, was directed to another kind of bill entirely. This bill, as you will see, asks only that the medical profession, medical books, journals and reprints therefrom, and articles designed for the prevention of conception, used by the medical profession in hospitals, clinics, and so forth, shall have the right to use the United States mails and common carriers.

The circular sent out by the National Catholic Welfare Conference may have been responsible for the confusion as it stated that the bill was drafted and introduced at the request of the Voluntary Parenthood League. That statement is untrue. This bill is sponsored by the Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, and it has not been endorsed by the Voluntary Parenthood League at all.

Now, Mr. Chairman, if I may just briefly take a little time to go through some of the other points that were made this morning, just the essential points, I will not take a great deal of your time.

Mrs. Sanger: Dr. Henry Cattell referred to certain contraceptive materials this morning. He called them “Sanger Pro-Tex Tubes,” and the implication was that I sponsored the devices named. I have never sanctioned nor given permission for the use of my name nor indorsed any article on contraception. Nor have I allowed the use of my name for any commercial purposes whatsoever, and I protest against the statement and the insinuation that certain devices and medical supplies have my name or my sanction. Something was said here this morning about the Soviet Government of Russia approving of birth control. That is immaterial, absolutely immaterial. The whole birth-control movement was begun in this country in 1914 before there was a Soviet Government, and indeed I feel highly complimented if we have been able to bring sane, safe, and constructive ideas about the control of population to the Soviet Government.

I want to say also that not only governments like Russia, but the British Government has also gone on record through certain of its departments as approving of the practice of birth control. Just within the last year the Lambeth Conference in England sanctioned the right of individuals to practice birth control according to their conscience.

The British Medical Association has also gone on record in favor and the Ministry of Health in England has approved the practice of allowing the patients who come to the maternal and infant welfare centers to have contraceptive advice by Government authority, so that all governments are seeking some solution to this question of population.

I also want to say, Mr. Chairman, that we who are advocating this bill are trying to do away with the surreptitious and harmful information that is at present being spread around the country without being authorized, or controlled by experts who have the right to give it. I believe that the only way to do away with the harmful information which has been mentioned here this morning is to put the subject in the hands of medical profession to be properly controlled.

When some one says that the happiest families are the largest ones, and that the world’s great leaders have been large families, I would like to all to your attention that the great leader of Christianity, Jesus Christ himself, was said to be an only child.

Now, Mr. Chairman, I am not going to take much time, but I want to say that the controversy really concerns the question of differing methods of birth control. The method of self-control recommended by some of those who are here to-day, is open to them. They may use such methods. We are not imposing any method upon any individuals. There are said to be 120,000,000 people in this country, and I suppose that a large part of that number, perhaps 15,000,000, we will say to be generous, or even 20,000,000. are Catholics, but there are 105,000,000 left who are non-Catholics. They are not imposing any legislation upon the Catholics. We in no way try to inflict our ideas upon them. They have a perfect right to use the method of self-control if they wish, but we do believe that we have just as much right under the Constitution to enjoy health, peace, and the right to the pursuit of happiness as we see it.

So I want to say that this whole group this morning, who have represented perhaps certain moral organizations of the country, seem to me to be like the boy who is whistling to keep up courage. No doubt there has been a falling away from grace, we might say, in the past several years, and they who represent such moral standards must see that they have failed to a considerable extent when we consider that they have had so much power. They have had the laws with them, the wealth, the press, and yet they have come to-day to say they are afraid of the morals of their people if they have knowledge, if they do not continue to be kept in fear and ignorance. Then I say their moral teachings are not very deep.

I want to say just one thing further. We have birth-control clinics that are legally operating throughout the United States, and in almost every one of the birth-control clinics we have the same records. Women come to us, regardless of religion, desperate women, women trying to live decently, trying to avoid the conditions that unwanted pregnancy and too frequent pregnancy bring. These women come in equal proportions. It runs about 33 per cent Protestant, 32 per cent Catholics, and 31 per cent Jewish women. They all come with the same cry, “Give us a chance to space our children. It is not that we do not love children, because we do love them; but because we want to give them a better chance than we have had, and we know that another child born into this family only deprives the children that are already here of a decent living with the ideals that we have for them.”

Further, when you get 500 Catholic women in one clinic, with confessions of 597 abortions, Mr. Chairman, I say that it is time for us all to consider this problem intelligently. It is time for us all to consider a fundamental need, the fundamental question that is involved here. Catholic women are no different from any other women. It is all the same. The great majority of women who come to birth-control clinics are seeking some means of controlling the size of their family because heretofore they have had to resort to these harmful methods. This is what we are trying to eliminate. We are trying to save mothers from this great hardship, from this unnatural ordeal. In the past many women who desired to control the size of their families have had to resort to an interruption of pregnancy, a method of which we disapprove, and which this law is going to do away with eventually, I am quite certain.

Mr. Chairman, we say that we want children conceived in love, born of parents’ conscious desire, and born into the world with healthy and sound bodies and sound minds.


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