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Margaret Sanger, "Woman's Power and Birth Control," Apr 1922.

Source: " Kaizo, Apr. 1922, pp. 147-157."

For earlier typed version, see Library of Congress Microfilm LC 130:0013 and for incomplete, published version see Smith Collection Microfilm, S70:0950.

Woman's Power and Birth Control.

By Mrs. Margaret H. Sanger.

It is not asserting too much to say that the gravest question the world faces at the present moment is the numbers and quality of its inhabitants. There are nations in which over-population is already chronic, and in which the surplus numbers are swept away from time to time by the cruel natural forces of nature--famine and pestilence. China, Russia and India show the workings of natural law when man leaves this most important question to chance. Other nations look forward with fear to the time when more space must be found for their teeming populations, and the result is wars and preparations for war--some nations preparing for “expansion,” whilst others prepare to defend themselves against the aggressions of those with more rapidly expanding numbers. Until recently the United States was the greatest expansion ground for the world. Relief could be found there for the pressure of numbers in European countries. But America is shutting her gates, and the empty places of the world in both hemispheres are now rapidly filling up.

Nor can we comfort ourselves with the reflection that the struggle for existence will serve to improve the race--that the strong, the capable and the intelligent will survive and that the weaklings and those of inferior mind and body will be eliminated. The struggle for existence does not have these results in human society. Artificial restraints of civilization and law prevent the struggle from being a fair trail of strength and endurance, such as it still may be among wild animals. The wealthy are sheltered behind their possessions, and the police of every country prevent the strong from snatching from the weak.

Overpopulation means a continually increasing degradation of the poor. The poor man with a large family to support must accept any wage that is offered. His very need for more than his fellow work-man who is young and single, compels him to accept less--in the fear that he get nothing. His family is underfed, underclothed, undereducated and not decently housed. His wife, worn out with excessive labor, is unfit for child bearing; yet continues to bear children. Some children die, some survive. For every child that dies in the struggle, there are three of four who grow up stunted, and unfit.

So it is in the case of famine and pestilence. Such visitations do not sweep through the community like a fire, carrying away the rotten members and leaving the sound untouched, with new room for expansion. They attack men, women and children, the best as well as the worst. Many they kill, and these are not always the weakest and the least desirable. But those they leave behind are in many cases a worse liability for the nation than those that were slain. A glance at the famine pictures of Austria or Russia tells what these nations have to cope with in the case of hundreds of thousands of human beings who have survived famine and pestilence, but who will all their lives be a burden rather than an asset to society.

Nor is war any remedy. The pick of the men of the nation are taken for war, leaving the infirm and unfit to breed the new generation. With the results of the world war before our eyes, who can claim that the result has been eugenic for France, for Germany, for Austria, for England or for any country that took part in it. From any and every point of view we find that men cannot trust to the blind forces of nature for the improvement of his race; but that if he desires improvement, he must use his intelligence and his will power and win it for himself.

All these facts have been perfectly well known for generations. In the meantime, science has advanced and in almost every other field except that of the improvement of his own race, man has become the master of nature. He has discovered the laws of physics, of light and electricity. He has overcome the force of gravitation and made the air his highway. He has annihilated distance and made possible instantaneous communication with the ends of the world. He has even to a great extent conquered disease, and lengthened the lifetime of the average man or woman who survives infancy. But before the problem of overpopulation he has wrung his hands in helplessness, and the multiplication of the unfit goes on as though man were the subject, not the master of nature.

What is the answer to the problem? Is civilization to be at the mercy of the terrible tendency of human beings to multiply beyond the power of human intelligence to provide for them-–beyond the possibility of the motherland to contain them? Must every nation look forward to exiling a proportion of its best inhabitants, if those who remain are to be fed? And must every nation be kept in dread lest the overflowing multitudes of another country descend upon its shores and force it to fight for its very existence? Must the human race grow less fit, as time goes on, rather that more perfect? Must more than half of the men, women and children on this globe of ours suffer throughout their whole lives because there is not room enough, not food enough, not opportunity enough to allow them their full development?

The problem has not gone without attention. A new science–-the science of Eugenics-–is coming into being, and men and women who are deeply concerned over the large proportion in our population of feeble-minded and unfit have put forward propositions for dealing with the danger. These Eugenists have grasped part of the problem. They are calling public attention to the multiplication of the unfit. They have held international congresses, and have put forward various proposals for securing a better balance in the population. They would put a ban on the breeding of children by diseased and feeble-minded parents, and they rightly demand that society undertake the responsibility of caring for those of its members who are not capable of guiding their own lives. But they do face fairly the whole problem. Looking to the equality of population they leave out the factor of quantity. They seem to believe that by some form of government regulation, the multiplication of the fit could be encouraged, and that of the unfit prevent. They overlook the fact that to keep fit, there must be food, housing education and opportunity for each new comer, and that good stock cannot prevent deterioration and unfitness if the pressure be excessive.

The way out will not be found through the making and enforcing of more laws and more government restrictions. The problem is not so insoluble as it appears to those scientists and statesmen who consider it from the point of view of men. The reason for the apparent impasse is that men have considered the problem a problem of their own–-one that they alone must solve. But reproduction is not primarily a man’s problem. It is the woman’s problem. The woman bears the child. It is her function to bring it into the world, to nourish and care for it, and to give it its start in life. It should also be her function to restrict the number of children to which she will give birth; to keep this number within the limits of her own strength and power, and within the limits set by the wages earned by her husband, the home in which they are able to dwell and food, clothing, education and nurture which are available for them.

Women are not performing this duty. They are not able to perform it until they are given the liberty which is necessary before they can do it. They have been subjected so completely to the will of men that they scarcely realize their responsibility for the evils threatening the world through over-population. And yet it is true that women passionately desire the limitation of population. The spirit of woman rises up in revolt against the burden laid upon her of bearing children beyond her strength, children who are too numerous to allow her time for her own development, children who come into the world undesired and unwelcomed, a detriment to themselves, an oppression to the family and a menace to the nation.

It was formerly a commonly held belief that the child belonged solely to the father. It was his “seed” and all that the mother contributed was the fertile soil in which this seed could grow and ripen until it was ready for birth. The law which gives the child into the sole power of the father reflects this old idea; and it is partly due to this belief that the mother has been given so subordinate a position in the family. Modern science has proved that father and mother contribute equally to the inheritance of the child, and that the mother from her closer relation to the child both before and after birth exercises an influence over it far exceeding that of the father.

This superior power of the mother over the child is easily realized when it is remembered that, although the father gives the fertilizing element which must unite with the ovum, or egg cell of the mother before a new life came into being, the mother carries the developing cell for nine months in her own body. During these months it is the blood of the mother that feeds the child. If the mother is over-worked, is out of health, or is infected with disease, all these conditions are bound to have their influence on the child. The inheritance on both sides might be excellent. Both sperm cell and ovum might be from good wholesome stock, from parents and grand-parents of sound and healthy bodies and intelligent minds. But if during the nine months of pregnancy, the woman is unable to give the child due nourishment, if her blood is poisoned from over-fatigue, from the worry that rests so heavily upon the expectant mother who knows that the coming infant will steal the bread from her other children, who can expect a strong and healthy child? The breeder of animals would not allow his cows or his mares to be overworked and harassed when they were carrying the young. He would care too much for the welfare of both mother and progeny to risk the almost certainty of band results from such treatment. It would seem that men have never given to women the consideration that is given by every good farmer or horse owner to the prospective mothers of their calves and foals.

While women have not realized their responsibility for the evils that afflict the world through over-population, it has never been their will that too many children should be born. Woman is the true eugenist, and it is not only her desire for her own life–a desire which has long seemed right and proper for men, but which is often denied to women–but also her passion of mother love that makes her cry out in rebellion against the bearing of child after child for whom there is no room and no opportunity.

Always through the ages women have been in rebellion against too much child bearing. At various epochs this rebellion has been shown in infanticide–-infanticide which has been the net of the mother even more than the father.

At other times abortion has been called into service to rid the woman of the undesired child. laws have been passed against both these practices, but they have never been abolished, and one wonders whether they have been greatly checked. Yet both these remedies for over-population are abhorrent to the women who have resorted to them; and it is only in desperation, because they seem the lesser of two great evils, that they have been adopted.

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 of 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 fat 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 for 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 diseased 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 without her giving her free consent.

It happens sometimes that a man and a 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 feebleminded woman whose family has been carefully traced in Massachusetts, have been reckoned up into the hundreds with an expenditure of dollars by society on court trials, pirsons, and asylums for the army of criminals and defectives among them.

Leaving aside these cases where some form of disease makes child-bearing unwise for the parents and anti-social for the nation, we 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 members of healthy, well nourished and well reared children.

The bearing of children by very young mothers is not desirable. As soon as pregnancy begins, the mother’s own development has arrested. The child-mother is therefore stunted in growth 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 for so long has made women 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 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 family 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 economy status of the family into which the child is to be born. Over-population of a country is not at the 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 the sum of these little “too manies” 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, then 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 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 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 woman 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 the insufficient food and other hygienic deficiencies, lengthen out these hours of labor until the day hold 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 is 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 state of the close of the great war. Millions of the most perfect physically, the most capable and most intelligent of the young of all the belligerent countries were killed or entirely disabled during the titanic struggle. There was a feeling during the war that the world was short of workers, and that it would be necessary for those who remained to produce more per man than ever before. Yet within these 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 a country which had suffered nothing from the ravages of war, there were 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-respecting 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 take 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; it 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 of 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 normal birth of the baby. But abortion as usually performed on the poor 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 super-abundance 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 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 childbearing by preventing the coming together of the male and female reproductive elements is what is done continually by the unmarried and the 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 with the solution she is making man master of his own fate, as he is already the 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 limitations 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 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 cornerstone of the subjegation ofwoman, and the subjegation of woman 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 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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Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project