Warning: Use of undefined constant editmode - assumed 'editmode' (this will throw an Error in a future version of PHP) in /home/mspporg/sangerpapers.org/includes/docheader.php on line 49

Margaret Sanger, "High Lights in the History of Birth Control," 15 Apr 1923.

Source: " New York Tribune, Apr. 15, 1923, p. 6."

This article was reprinted in an American Birth Control League flyer, along with other articles as "Real Facts about Birth Control," Apr. 1923 Sanger Papers, Library of Congress microfim, LCM 129:0579. This article included a photo of Annie Besant with the caption: "Annie Besant was to England in 1877 what Margaret Sanger is now to America."

High Lights in the History of Birth Control


The history of birth control propaganda in this country, as in England, is full of excitement, certain phases of it being more like a novel of adventure than a record of fact. Ten years ago the very words "birth control" were considered daring. Today the expression is taken for granted and has, indeed, circled the globe. Birth control is discussed in Shanghai, Tokyo, Calcutta, Cairo, Colombo, no less than in London, New York, Chicago and Albany. Most of those who hold up their hands in holy horror at this doctrine, who condemn it as illegal and un-American, do so in ignorance of its history.

The theory of birth control was first formulated by the Rev. Robert Malthus, an obscure clergyman in the Church of England. Malthus advocated "prudential checks" and late marriages to limit the birth rate. This was one hundred and twenty years ago. Two of the earliest Presidents of the United States--Thomas Jefferson and James Madison--were ardent champions of Malthus.

Robert Dale Owen, a United States Senator and later Ambassador to France, wrote a book entitled "Moral Physiology," which gave birth control information and led to the arrest and conviction of a London bookseller. Owen's book was published in 1830. Ralph Waldo Emerson, New England's greatest philosopher, advocated birth control. He wrote: "If government know how, I would like to see it check, not multiply, the population."

Ninety years ago Dr. Knowlton, a Boston physician, published his "Fruits of Philosophy, " based on birth control. In 1876 Charles Bradlaugh and Mrs. Annie Besant distributed 125,000 copies of this book in England. They were arrested there for distributing "indecent literature." But the birth rate of England began to drop and it has never ceased decreasing.

In 1841 the Oneida Community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes at Putney, Vt. Later this colony moved to Oneida, N. Y. In his first annual report Noyes wrote: "We are opposed to excessive and of course oppressive procreation. We are opposed to random procreation. We are in favor of intelligent, well-ordered procreation."

Robert G. Ingersoll advocated Birth Control. He said: "Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother."

The first statute prohibiting the passage of birth control information through the mails was enacted through the efforts of the late Anthony Comstock in 1873. In 1906 Moses Harman, a man seventy-five, was sentenced to hard labor, breaking stone, in Leavenworth prison, because he published a serious discussion of marital relations. In 1912 Dr. Abraham Jacobi, is his presidential address before the American Medical Association, endorsed Birth Control as a hygienic program. Birth control clinics, with government approval, have been in operation in Holland since 1878.

The morality of birth control is upheld by many distinguished clergymen of the Church of England and other denominations. Dean Inge, of St. Paul's, London, believes this doctrine is an essential part of Christian ethics.

Matthew Arnold, the greatest critic of English literature of the Victorian era, championed the doctrine of birth control. He wrote: "A man's children are not really 'sent,' any more than the pictures on his walls or the horses in his stable are sent, and that to bring people into the world when one cannot afford to keep them and one's self decently and not too precariously is by no means an accomplishment of the divine will or a fulfillment of nature's simplest laws, but is contrary to reason and the will of God."

Such facts as these should, I think, demonstrate at least that birth control is not merely an expression of the fringe of feminism, that it cannot be dismissed as a subject too indecent and obscene to merit serious consideration. We can no longer ostrich-like bury our heads in the sands of sentimentality. Not merely in New York but in every metropolis of the United States and of the world we must face the problems of population.

What are these problems?

Go out into the streets. Our cities are overcrowded. We make desperate attempts to cope with the traffic problem. Everywhere there are congested districts. The higher the rents, the more paradoxically do people flock to the cities. All efforts to relieve congestion, seemingly, increase it. Despite all the efforts of city planners and engineers, modern civilization seems unable to keep even one step ahead of the growth of the populations.

We have become a nation of crowds--crowds in the theaters, crowds in the subways, crowds in motor cars waiting hours to cross in ferryboats or seeking to escape, for at least one day in the country, the eternal gregariousness of city life. And yet the ceaseless drift to the cities continues.

At first glance this problem might seem to be one of city planning alone. But if we investigate it more closely, if we summon the courage to look ahead for two or three generations and try to envisage the results of this continuous and uncontrolled growth of population in our urban centers, we shall see that if, as a nation, we are merely interested in an endless multiplication of numbers we are doomed to sacrifice the finer interests of American civilization.

We cannot deny, for instance, that the schools of New York City are lamentably overcrowded; our school buildings are inadequate to the needs of the thousands of children who crowd into them. Individual attention is impossible. Little children are forced to play in city streets. Small wonder, then, that juvenile delinquency is always increasing and precocious lawbreakers are sent away to reform schools and such institutions--an added expense to the community.

Until we are prepared to give each and every child a fair start in life we have only ourselves to blame for the evils of juvenile crime and delinquency and the shame of child labor. As Herbert Hoover pointed out not long ago: "The nation as a whole has the obligation of such measures toward its children as will yield to them an equal opportunity at their start in life. If we could grapple with the whole child situation for one generation our public health, our economic efficiency, the moral character, sanity and stability of our people would advance three generations in one."

The bill introduced in the Assembly at Albany did not aim to force the practice of birth control upon unwilling parents. It did not aim to destroy the teaching of any one's church or religion. It aimed at the alleviation of what we may legitimately term the conscription of motherhood.

Birth control aims to introduce into the creation of the next generation of American citizens those sound and scientific principles observed by the gardener and the agriculturist. We must cultivate the human garden by proper spacing, by improving the quality of our precious crop of children by methods of intensive cultivation and not by the production of mere number.

We are not, I must repeat, trying to force this doctrine upon the American public. Every day thousands of poor mothers are begging us for help, fully conscious that their sacred duty to the children they have already brought into the world demands that they shall not assume further parental responsibilities which they cannot fulfill. It has been in answer to these unfortunate and conscripted mothers that legislation authorizing duly registered physicians to administer the necessary hygienic and scientific advice has been asked.

Its enactment would make possible the establishment of bureaus and clinics where the women of the poor might receive the first lesson in racial responsibilities and hygienic education. It is our conviction that such instruction would do far more toward the creation of a fine, sturdy race of vigorous and representative Americans in twenty-five to fifty years than any other political or legislative measure.

Subject Terms:

Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project