Margaret Sanger, "Editorial on the Repeal of Anti-Birth Control Laws," Mar 1921.

Source: " Birth Control Review, Mar. 1921, pp.3-4.."

This unsigned editorial likely written by Margaret Sanger.


In our campaign for voluntary motherhood, three great tasks confront us. These tasks are closely coordinated and interrelated. Yet each has its own distinct purpose and method. Let us not confuse them. Let us not make the mistake of acting upon the assumption that any one of them is enough. Let us not delude ourselves into the belief that our work will end when we have successfully solved one of these problems. Let us not depreciate efforts in one direction to emphasize work in another. The first essential for progressive work is to clear up this confusion. The best way is to make a definite statement of these three great tasks. These, it seems to me, are roughly to be differentiated as follows:

(1) AGITATION AND EDUCATION: aiming to arrest, awaken and focus public interest to the pivotal importance of birth control; to point out the importance of a sound population policy for the United States and all countries of the world; to show the organized relationship of the function of Voluntary Motherhood in all programs aiming at social advance; to organize enlightened public opinion into decisive action. (2) POLITICAL AND LEGISLATIVE ACTION: aiming to effect changes in federal and state laws restricting the knowledge and practice of birth control; to the end that hindrances may be removed preventing practical education in sex and social hygiene. (3) PRACTICAL SCIENTIFIC TEACHING: aiming to meet the demand for birth control and hygienic knowledge by women WHO MOST NEED IT; aiming to establish birth control as a universal practice.

Important as are the first two tasks here defined, they are misdirected unless they converge towards the third; unless they aim always to facilitate the solution of the last and greatest of our problems. We must keep this always in mind. We must work realistically. We must begin here and now. We must work from within, out. If birth control were not the answer to the immediate needs of submerged and overburdened mothers all around us, it would not and could not exhibit such tremendous vitality. From the economic, the intellectual, the logical point of view, it might be overwhelmingly necessary and convincing; yet if, like so many reform policies, it had to be imposed from above--had in short to be thrust upon the underlying population from above, it would be inevitably foredoomed to failure. But it is because birth control is the answer to great human needs and the inarticulate cry for help from enslaved women, that it cannot be refuted or dismissed.

If at any moment we lose sight of the struggling, suffering, submerged woman, our work will at once become futile and misguided. Visions and dreams of a happy and healthy humanity are always inspiring; but too often they act as opiates which close our eyes to the cruel facts of life that painfully thrust themselves before our eyes. In our intoxication we are apt to place all our faith in some “political or legislative magic lamp” which we need merely to rub to effect a glorious transformation. The painful truth is this: educational and effective for the women who, from the personal and solve this problem: how to make birth control practical and effective for the women who, from the personal and racial point of view, most need it.

The greatest misunderstanding seems to arise, at the present moment, because of our support of the movement to effect the amendment of the New York State statues (Article 106, Section 1145) aiming thus to clear the way for practical and effective birth control education in this state, by removing the present prohibitions to doctors, nurses, midwives, clinics and dispensaries. To the objection that this perpetuates and even strengthens the so-called “medical monopoly,” let us repeat that this question must be practical, effective, and scientific. It cannot be a subject of back-fence gossip. To speak of “medical monopoly” is to speak of the monopoly of any specialist in technical scientific method and knowledge. We might as well condemn the “dentist’s monopoly,” the “occultist’s monopoly,” or the “plumber’s monopoly.” For the best care of our teeth, we must go to the dentist, even though we might get much information out of a volume devoted to the relation of teeth to health. The proposed state amendment would open a direct avenue of approach to the women who need direct education and instruction in methods of birth control. It would permit us to get in touch with these women without condescension, but with respect and reverence. Many cannot read--a pamphlet or book no matter how simple or lucid would be valueless. The great point to remember is that we must reach each individual woman, because the instruction must be based on individual needs and physiological peculiarities, upon individual diagnosis and characteristics, which, as any trained investigator knows, vary widely. And it is precisely the abnormal and submerged woman it is most important to meet.

In contrast to the state legislation is the proposed repeal of the federal law, aiming to open the United States mails to the distribution of birth control knowledge by amateurs.

We must not delude ourselves into the belief that this repeal would automatically cancel state laws. It merely opens the mails. It stresses the value of pamphlets and books and “literary” information. Even with this repeal, the physician, the nurse or the midwife in many of our most thickly populated states would be prevented from giving practical oral instruction. We base this opinion on the best legal advice available. We are told that the repeal of the federal law would be the quickest and shortest way to achieve our goal. But there is no such royal road! We might flood the country with tons of good books and pamphlets on the subject by recognized authorities on hygiene, psychology and sociology, but with no appreciable effect. (A poor woman once said to me: “I have read your book from cover to cover; and yet I am pregnant again!”) To offer a pamphlet to a woman who cannot read or is too tired and weary to understand its directions, is like offering a printed bill-of-fare to a starving man.

Yet the repeal of the federal law, would accomplish practically no more than this. Nevertheless, to some it seems of primary importance; and those who think so are best qualified to throw their energies into that work. There is work for all of us; and it is a merely verbal quibble to derogate any phase of our tremendous tasks. Our work requires the maximum of patience, persistence, and foresight. The obstacles are great-- much greater than some of us suspect. To overcome them we must mobilize all our energy, courage and bravery.

Much as we wish that one fine gesture would sweep aside these obsolete and ridiculous anti-contraceptive laws, both federal and state, experience has shown us the emptiness of legal and legislative victories unless followed up vigorously by concerted action. Remember that in England there is no law preventing the spread of birth control knowledge; yet we see there, that the removal of legal restriction in the use of the mails is not enough. Our interests and our activity must be positive, fundamental, dynamic, constructive. Let us beware of the futility of striving after vain victories and theoretical triumphs--which may, indeed, stimulate in us a fine glow of egotistical satisfaction, but also divert and distract our attention and interest from the hard, thankless, detailed work of helping overburdened mothers. Let us not be led into the trap of believing that the mere repeal of a federal law will change the course of ancient human habits or the most deep-rooted of instincts.

The amendment to the New York law had the great value of emphasizing the difficulties we must inevitably face, instead of blinding us to them. It opens the way to--

Direct contact between those competent to teach scientific practical birth control and sex hygiene to women who need and demand it. Physicians, nurses and midwives in public and private practice.

Establishment of special clinics, dispensaries and hygiene centers.

Transference of the idea of birth control from the realm of the theoretical, the controversial, and the illegal to the field of the experimental, the practical, the scientific, the hygienic and the eugenic.

This means the next and by far the most important step in our work. It is likewise our greatest and our central task. To those who spurn such a step, who prefer to place all their hopes and all their faith in one only of these great tasks--the repeal of one federal law--our efforts will undoubtedly seem too prosaic, too lacking in all the flame and fire of the newly awakened enthusiast, too much a step-by-step procedure. But let us point out again, let us repeat with all the vehemence and emphasis we are capable of; we cannot solve our problem, unless we are conscious of, and familiar with the elements and factors comprising it.

When we recognize the threefold character of our work, when we honestly face the many obstacles to be overcome, when we come to a realization of the ever harder work ahead of us, above all, when we give up the childish idea that we need to see the results of our toil or claim a reward for our efforts, we shall find our strength and our energies released for the work that is its own justification and its own reward.

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