Margaret Sanger, "The War Against Birth Control," Jun 1924.

Source: " The American Mercury June 1924, pp. 231-236 Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Collected Documents Series C16:222.."

For typed drafts, see Library of Congress Microfilm 129:637, 647 and 695. Excerpts of the article were published in the Sept. 1924 Birth Control Review as "The Fight Against Birth Control," pp. 245-248, and 269.


THE WAR AGAINST BIRTH CONTROL

BY MARGARET SANGER

. . .and priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
and binding with briars my joys and desires.
--William Blake.

"Strange," exclaims a character in Aldous Huxley's "Antic Hay," "how long it has taken the ideas of love and procreation to dissociate themselves in the human mind. Even in this so-called Twentieth Century they are, in the majority of minds, indivisibly wedded."

For ten years I have challenged this union of ideas, and in that turbulent period I have discovered that in this great commonwealth it is still considered "lewd, lascivious and obscene" to suggest their dissolution. When the diabolic words, Birth Control, first made their appearance in print, my obscure little journal was forbidden the mails, seven Federal indictments were lodged against me, and I was denounced, condemned and hounded out of the country. Since that time books on Birth Control have been suppressed, meetings called to discuss the underlying problem have been illegally broken up, and police officials, city councils, mayors, priests, archbishops, and other self-appointed meddlers have joined in obstructing and overriding all the constitutional guarantees of free speech. Their methods have been of infinite variety, their purposes audacious, and their organization and cohesion admirable.

These ten years of suppression and persecution have taught me many things. Despite the personal inconvenience I have undergone, I can now look with amusement and at times even with tolerance upon the incessant activities of this new caste of thought controllers. Perhaps I really owe them a debt of gratitude, for I have come to see that they discharge a useful function in our great national pageant, enact a picturesque and perhaps even necessary role in our human-all-too-human comedy. Without the aid of their frenzied opposition the idea of Birth Control might never have been broadcasted to the remotest outposts of civilization.

It is not my purpose here to argue the cause of Birth Control. I wish merely to touch upon certain aspects of the psychology of these thought suppressors--aspects perhaps unfamiliar to many who have never incurred their enmity.

II

In the first place, let us recognize that in the ordinary acceptance of the term, morality is nothing but the sum total, the net residuum, of social habits, the codification of customs. Decent, conservative and altogether respectable cannibals find nothing immoral in anthropophagy. The only "immoral" person, in any country, is he who fails to observe the current folkways. Thus nothing can be so absolutely "moral," as Samuel Butler suggested, as complete mental stagnation. To think about something new is as painful to the true conservative as to exercise an atrophied muscle. To doubt the wisdom of tradition is frowned upon. To introduce a new idea is to awaken a violent protest. More than once new inventions and discoveries of great value have been punished as crimes against the public good.

Contrary to a widespread illusion, no sort of conduct among primitive and barbaric tribes is more rigidly regulated than the sexual. Custom controls the sexual impulse as it controls no other, and infraction of the traditional rules is punished by the severest penalties. In contrast with this tyranny of the primitive mores, civilization has brought about the gradual extension of the sphere of individual liberty and of personal choice. It has substituted heterogeneity in behavior and thought for rigid and routine servility to custom.

But during the past half century in the United States we have been the witnesses of a counter movement. Manifestly, it has been impossible to enforce upon the ebullient and inchoate groups which make up our population any hard and fast set of rules for sexual behavior. It has been perfectly possible, however, to enforce a strict silence concerning sex, and to forbid, under the threat of severe punishment, any frank or open discussion of its problems. This counter movement, therefore, has been not so much an attempt to codify and ritualize sexual conduct among the population at large as an effort to control thought and speech upon the subject.

Fifty-one years have passed since Anthony Comstock, patron saint of our morality mongers, succeeded in having his psychosexual hyperaesthesia codified into State and Federal statutes. Section 211 of the Penal code, which legally links contraception with obscenity, is based on his curiously morbid conception of human functions. The only lawful justification of love, he believed, was the procreation of children. Except for this avowed purpose, all intercourse should be made punishable by fine and imprisonment. Unless men and women could prove the virtuous motive of their cohabitation, they should be--and indeed I am informed that in certain sections of the United States they often are--thrown into jail. The Comstockian legislation against contraception was thus aimed at those who held that, independent of prospective parenthood, sexual relations had a legitimate excuse and value of their own.

Comstock, though he is dead, remains the archetype of the successful moral censor. His fanaticism generated a terrific energy. Galvanized into incessant and frenzied activity by the intensity of his obsession, he discovered obscenity everywhere. He came to be a national pontiff of prurience. Congress quailed before his passion. He convinced sheep-like legislators that unless his last-minute measures were enacted into law, American society would be hurled over the cliff into the abyss of eternal damnation. He gained greater and greater authority. He swayed Congress and the state legislatures, he became the moral censor of the Post office, and finally he controlled even the port of New York.

Havelock Ellis has told us that anything that sexually excites a prurient mind is obscene to that mind. Obscenity dominated Comstock's mind. "Men think they know," some one has written, "because they feel, and are firmly convinced because they are strongly agitated." There was never any doubt in Anthony's breast and his certainty was always translated into action. He hounded men and women, regardless of their dignity and good intentions. Because, at the age of 75, Moses Harman published an article discussing matrimonial relations without evasion, he was sentenced to hard labor at Leavenworth. Through the force of his fanatical zeal and the inexhaustible resources of his energy Comstock was able for years to terrorize and anaesthetize the American mind. Armed with his newly legal forged weapons, his tyranny became complete. Always he was able to work "within the law."

III

In one respect the self-appointed guardians of American morality differ today from their heroic ancestor. Speaking on the basis of my own experience and observation, I cannot escape the conclusion that those who have made the Birth Control movement the object of their particular enmity are totally ignorant of what may be termed the classical tactics of suppression. They are like schoolboys playing with chemicals. Where they have hoped to enforce silence, they have been surprised and shocked by the force and repercussive effect of unexpected detonations. They themselves are often compelled to run to cover. Instead of silencing an idea or a book, they merely dramatize it. Over and over again they have worked miracles of publicity that would have been impossible to a regiment of press-agents.

The Birth Control movement in America has had the good luck to incur the wrath of two distinct schools of censors. At first the Comstockians focused their attention on us. But with the passing of that patriarch any experienced observer must have noted the rapid decline of the Comstockian school. It has now become almost senile. No longer is it actuated by the stupendous frenzy of its founder. The grandiose gestures of the Golden Age are now things of the past. The neo-Comstocks are making, it is true, occasional spurts of activity, successful mainly because of the feebleness of the literary challenges to Mr. John S. Sumner. But I venture to predict that, in a future not too distant, there will be a gradual disintegration of the whole school. Times are changing. We are no longer in the Victorian era. Despite itself, American society cannot again bring to fruit so perfect a specimen of dynamic psychosexual hyperaesthesia as Anthony Comstock presented. And without the impelling force of an overwhelming pathological prurience, no virtuoso of his caliber can arise among us.

Today the chief warfare against Birth Control is waged by the Roman Catholic clergy and their allies. From the psychological point of view the fact is not without its significance. For at least fifteen hundred years the church has occupied itself with the problem of imposing abstinence upon its priesthood--an intelligent and trained body of men who have been taught to look upon complete asceticism as the highest ideal--and it is not surprising that such a class of professional celibates should be psychically sensitive to the implications of the idea of contraception. Taught to look upon all expressions of physical love as sinful, it is but natural that these men should combat a school of thought so diametrically opposed to their own. Thus the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church and its representatives, high and low, is logical and to be expected. The philosophy of Birth Control insists upon the maximum of personal liberty in every sphere of human behavior that is compatible with the maximum of personal responsibility. Rightly or wrongly, it throws back upon the individual full responsibility for his behavior. It requires him to act upon the basis of reason, experience and prudence. True morality, we claim, is the outgrowth of experience and of the exercise of rational intelligence upon that experience.

The Catholic scheme of ethics, on the contrary, demands strict obedience to the laws and prohibitions that have been codified by authority. That authority declares in no uncertain terms that "all positive methods of this nature {contraception} are immoral and forbidden." In a Christmas pastoral Archbishop (now Cardinal) Patrick J. Hayes ventured so far as to assert that

even though some little angels in the flesh, through the moral or physical deformities of their parents, may appear to human eyes hideous, misshapen, a blot on civilized society, we must not lose sight of this Christian thought: that under and within such visible malformations lives an immortal soul to be saved and glorified for all eternity among the blessed in Heaven.

From exponents of the philosophy represented by this utterance the early advocates of Birth Control were prepared for the bitterest opposition. As a matter of fact, we welcomed such opposition, hoping only that the battle might be carried on according to the rules of decency and honesty.

Neither the theory nor the practice of Birth Control has ever been thrust upon women unwilling to accept it, least of all upon Catholics. We have conceded to Catholic and all other clergymen the full right to preach their own doctrines, both of theology and of morals. When, however, the Catholic clergy attempt to force their ideas upon non-Catholic sections of the American public and transform them into legislative acts, we believe we are well within our rights as American citizens when we voice our protest. The unsportsmanlike tactics and strategy of these opponents to Birth Control may be illustrated by two examples of attempted suppression.

Three years ago, as a fitting conclusion to the First American Birth Control Conference, a public meeting was arranged at the Town Hall in New York City. The subject chosen for discussion was the ethics of Birth Control. It was our aim to use this occasion, not for agitation, but to determine the opinions of representative men and women of all professions. Opponents of the doctrine were to be given a fair opportunity to state their objections. But the meeting was summarily closed by the police, acting, as subsequent investigation proved, on the instructions of Monsignor Dineen, secretary to Archbishop Hayes! When I attempted to speak, I was dragged off to a police station, and with me went those who protested against this illegal and unwarranted abuse of authority. The case was promptly dismissed by the magistrate the following morning. The ecclesiastical instigators of the suppression did not appear against me. But the investigation which followed indicated that the police who broke up the meeting had received their orders, not from police headquarters, but from the clergy!

The boomerang effect of this performance was indicated by the reverberations in the press. The idea of Birth Control was advertised, dramatized, made the recipient of column upon column of publicity. Only an infinitesimal section of the public had been aware of the first American Birth Control Conference; even fewer persons knew of the proposed meeting in the Town Hall. The clumsy and illegal tactics of our opponents made the whole country aware of what we were doing. Even the most conservative of American newspapers were placed in the position of defending our doctrine. Letters showered in upon us. Many new members joined the League. At a later date, in a much larger auditorium, crowded to the doors, the meeting was held. Thus our first national conference was crowned with triumph. Indeed, the momentum of the publicity we obtained by this unlawful interference carried us over many months. Instead of cutting off the public discussion of Birth Control, the episode made the whole country talk about Birth Control. There were symposiums, editorials, letters from "constant readers"--all of which had the effect deliberately sought by us, of keeping our idea interesting to the public at large.

Other tactics were invoked by the avowed enemies of Birth Control in a more recent attempt at censorship. When a state conference was arranged in Syracuse our clerical opponents brought pressure to bear upon the Common Council of that city--the members of which, unless I am mistaken, had all taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and that of the State of New York. An ordinance was introduced making it a misdemeanor to discuss the subject of Birth Control in the city of Syracuse, and with but a single dissenting voice it was passed. To become a law it needed only the signature of the mayor. A violent protest now arose. Many who had not hitherto shown any interest in Birth Control sprang to the defense of the constitutional guarantees of free speech and peaceable assembly. The mayor, finally, vetoed the ordinance and the state conference was successfully held. By this episode the inhabitants of Syracuse were not merely introduced to our idea; they were in addition taught something about the Constitution.

I might recount almost innumerable other instances of crude and usually unsuccessful attempts at illegal suppression. Hotels have been boycotted by such organizations as the Knights of Columbus because the managers have purveyed luncheons to advocates of Birth Control. Halls contracted and paid for have been withdrawn at the last minute on account of pressure brought to bear upon their owners. Permits to hold meetings have been refused by mayors or other city officials in cities in which there was a powerful Catholic constituency. Few politicians, though they have sworn to uphold the Constitution, dare jeopardize their future as office holders by incurring the displeasure of clerical authorities who control the thoughts of their adherents.

It is hardly necessary, I hope, to reiterate here that we concede to Catholics and to all other churchmen full freedom to preach their own doctrines, whether theological or moral. But when they attempt, through illegal tactics, to force their opinions and codes upon non-Catholics they should be and will be challenged.

IV

I do not wish to convey the impression that my ten years of experience have driven me to the conclusion that suppression is an unmixed blessing. It is true that the idea of Birth Control has been made to thrive by these ill-advised attempts to extirpate it from the American mind. But its vitality is not merely the chance result of such clumsy, clownish antics. If we had not been determined, with all the courage and stamina at our command, constantly, promptly and unflinchingly to challenge the assumed authority of these self-appointed censors, our movement never would have profited nor advanced.

Looked at from a broad point of view, the disadvantages of opposition have probably outweighed the benefits. If a powerful ecclesiastical organization, armed with the vast authority of tradition, can countenance and even encourage an impudent disregard of the Constitution of the United States, the document which insures to that organization itself the freedom to perpetuate itself and extend its influence, does the fact not set an evil example to any lesser organization or group which sets up shop to interfere in other people's affairs? Public opinion in America, I fear, is too willing to condone in the officials of the Roman Catholic Church what it condemns in the Ku Klux Klan. Today American "purity" is protected by an interlocking directorate of professional meddlers, a bloodless but bloodthirsty tribe, scanning the horizon for any and every outbreak of human passion, galloping post haste to the scene of every such verboten manifestation like a tribe of Indians descending upon a pioneer's wagon. Any Dogberry clothed in brief authority, any psychopathic person with an "obscenity" complex may inaugurate the hunt. I have run the gauntlet in this new American sport and I know how well the new Inquisition is organized.

Sporadic protests against the program of organized encroachment upon the citizen's constitutional rights; indignation meetings called by radicals, Liberals and intellectuals when some book is banned; anaemic, half-hearted denunciations of all censorship; campaigns for free speech, so often inaugurated and so rapidly dropped--such phenomena as these appear to me as one who has been more or less in the trenches for ten years, as not unsuggestive of an awkward squad of school boys armed with bean-shooters, advancing against the machine guns and poison gases of a trained army. Nevertheless, as I have tried to show, a little group of women under the direction of one who may be a fanatic have been able to wrest victory form this army. The secret of our success, if I may be permitted for the moment to call it a success, is to be found in the fact that we have never wasted our time and energy whining about our constitutional right to free speech. We have simply spoken out. We have asserted the truth as we have found it. We have spoken openly, honestly, aboveboard, and without equivocation or hypocrisy. We have repeated ourselves, we have reiterated our truisms, we have been, perhaps, at times tiresome and boring, but by following that program--by saying something and standing by what we have said--we have recaptured, for ourselves at least, the right to be heard. In this, I am convinced, we have set an example to others who have ideas to propagate--some of them, perhaps, of infinitely more importance to the American public than Birth Control. But so far they do not seem to be courageous enough to challenge an authority that invades every field of thought. We have, as a nation, not yet awakened to the realization that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Vituperation of the purity brigade may be an amusing substitute for mah jong and radio concerts for the intellectually detached, and indignant libertarians may derive some satisfaction from making loudmouthed protests after somebody or something has been suppressed, but such activities contribute exactly nothing toward a cure for our national disease. If the American public is ever to be brought safely out of the mental coma into which it has fallen, something more than persistent criticism of the professional meddler is imperative. An ounce of courage is worth a ton of criticism.


Subject Terms:

Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project


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