Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control in India," 07 May 1936.
Published Speech. Source: American Eugenics, eds. Edward Lindeman, Arthur E. Morgan, and American Eugenics Society (New York, 1936), pp. 34-38. , Library of COngress Microfilm 141:585 .
Sanger gave this speech on May 7, 1936 at the annual meeting of the American Eugenics Society at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City.For additional versions, see Library of Congress Microfilm 128:502 and 41:560B
President of the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control
The American Eugenics Society has asked me to speak to you today on my experiences in India. I was invited to come to India to address the All India Women’s Conference, and it was my hope that by appearing before this group, which represents ten million women, and by securing the passage of a resolution in support of birth control, I might give impetus to the birth control movement in that country. I was in India a scant ten weeks, but the ground covered and the results obtained exceeded my wildest dreams.
I arrived in Bombay in early December, a month before the All India Women’s Conference, and was immediately caught up in a whirl of meetings and lectures. Interest in birth control in India is tremendous, and it was a new experience to speak in a country without legal restrictions and with practically no religious opposition.
A few figures as to the need of birth control in India and some summary of what has already been done, will interest you. Population is one of India’s greatest problems. The census of India taken in 1931 showed a population increase of 34 millions in ten years. Colonel Russell, the Commissioner for Public Health in India, in his last report, 1933, states that since 1931 there has been an increase of nearly 20 millions, and that the population is now not less than 370 million. He estimates that by 1941, when the next census is taken, the population will considerably exceed 400 million, and says: “The problem of numbers is a question which will shortly force itself upon the attention of every man and woman in this country. It is to be hoped that it will received adequate notice before disaster befalls.”
The infant mortality and child mortality rates in India are tragically high. Each year 1,750,000 infants die in their first year, and 50 per cent of the children die before reaching the age of five. It is estimated that maternal mortality accounts for 200,000 deaths a year.
In any summary of birth control work in India, mention must first be made of the activities of Dr. A. P. Pillay of Bombay. Dr. Pillay, as you doubtless know, founded the Journal of Marriage Hygiene, and organized the Society for the Study and Promotion of Family Hygiene. The Journal is considered the foremost international publication on the subject at present, and is building up a fine circulation. Despite this, some issues have encountered difficulty in passing the customs and in entering the United States. Dr. Pillay’s center in Bombay is the outstanding place in India where information on birth control may be obtained.
In Madras, the Neo-Malthusian League, founded by Sir Vepa Ramesam in 1928, carried on educational birth control work. This League has on its Board many distinguished people, including two Maharajas, a high court judge, an editor, the principal of the National Academy in Triplicane, and several prominent attorneys. The League issues a sixteen-page magazine and will doubtless form the nucleus of a large network of centers covering the South of India. At Calicut, on the south-west coast, a Birth Control Information Centre has been established. Besides these major organizations, there are clinics in Calcutta, Poona, Mysore City, and Bangalore, which are developing slowly but with great promise for the future.
Immediately upon my arrival in India, I addressed a large public meeting under the auspices of Dr. Pillay’s organization, and spoke before a specially convened meeting of the Corporation of Bombay with the Mayor in the Chair. I also showed the technical films I had with me to a meeting of 500 doctors, and gave a radio address which was widely broadcast from the Bombay Station on “What Birth Control Can Do For India.”
The two films on “The Biology of Conception” helped materially in explaining the practical side of contraception. One covered the chemical aspects of contraception and the other the mechanical aspects. These films were made under the direction of Dr. Abraham Stone and the supervision of Dr. Robert Chambers of New York University, and the photography was done by Nicholas Grand and his brother.
The birth control resolution passed the All India Women’s Conference by a vote of 85 to 24. The discussion preceding its passage showed that the Indian women are equipped with knowledge of this and other related subjects. Almost all of the people who attended spoke English. Women came from the Punjab and Kashmir bringing babies with them--the courtyards were filled with babies, infants, and children. Some of these women had read much and taken five or six weeks to prepare papers, hoping to read them at the Conference. Many went away disappointed. Withdrawal of the opposition was accomplished by the Indian Women in an unusual way: The same old arguments of morality, immorality, etc., were advanced. The last speaker in favor of the resolution capped the climax when she said, “I am the mother of five children. I have never heard so much said about the ‘lusts’ and ‘passion’ of men as I have heard here from unmarried women this morning.” A few Roman Catholic women withdrew from the Conference because of the resolution, and the chairman told them they were doing the right thing. “If you stay we will all suffer from discord,” she said. “It is better that you go.”
In addition to the films on “The Biology of Conception,” I took with me to India a large quantity of supplies, among other things gyneplacques (models of the female reproductive organs), which were a great help to the doctors. The medicine doll is still used extensively in India. In general, the doctor cannot see his women patients, but must send in to the patient and the midwife the medicine doll, on which the attendant marks the place where the pain is felt. I left supplies and equipment at about 50 places, where, I am promised, centers for the teaching and dissemination of birth control information will be formed.
In the villages where 95 per cent of the people do not earn more than 5 cents per day and 97 per cent of the people do not have more than one full meal a day, there is naturally a very low standard of living. Here I advised the use of a formula which has been tried out in Florida. Its chief ingredient is rice, and it seems practicable, therefore, for the Orient. I presented it tentatively, with the understanding that we had not thoroughly tested it in our Research Bureau. Much interest was aroused because of its cheapness, and it is being tried out under the auspices of public health officers in Bombay and Hong Kong.
In addition to the All India Women’s Conference, I addressed 64 meetings, and conferred with scores of government and city officials--governors, mayors, magistrates, health directors, heads of hospitals and other public and private institutions. Some idea of the ground covered may be gleaned from the fact that I traveled 10,000 miles in 10 weeks. Mrs. Edith How-Martyn, Director of the Birth Control International Information Centre (London), who was also in India, addressed 41 meetings and traveled 6,5000 miles. Thirty-two of all these meetings were before medical groups. In this way it was possible to reach the doctors and carry on a medical campaign first. This is, I believe, preferable to the way the movement developed in America, where the public was appealed to first and the medical campaign followed. If anything will bring about the practice of contraception in India, it will be the fact that 34 medical societies are willing to do something about birth control in their public practice.
The All India Medical Conference passed the following resolution without a dissentient vote: “This Conference recommends that instruction in Contraception Control Methods should form part of the curriculum in Medical Colleges and Schools.” Among the other medical groups addressed were the first All India Conference of Gynecologists and Obstetricians and the annual meeting of the Tinnevelly Medical Association.
Among the most interesting events of my stay in India were my visits to Rabindranath Tagore and to Mahatma Gandhi. Dr. Tagore is very much in favor of birth control. It was an inspiration to see how well he understands the needs of women and the suffering they have to endure, and to realize his vision of what women could do if they were free and able to take an equal share with men in the control of human activities. Once again, and even more than before, I was charmed with Dr. Tagore’s personality and with his broad, human viewpoint.
I spent two days with Gandhi at his Ashram in Wardha, and had many inspiring conversations and walks with him at sunrise and sunset. Mr. Gandhi has practically stepped out of politics, but is deeply loved by the people. Many women are devoted to him and have sacrificed much to join his crusade. The public attitude on birth control has been indirectly helped by Gandhi’s work because he has roused the younger generation to a realization of its own worth. Gandhi is, I believe, receptive to the principles of birth control but, like many other Indians, he believes that all his country’s problems would solve themselves if Great Britain would only withdraw.
In Allahabad I stayed with a family in which there were three little girls, aged 9, 7, and 5, beautifully reared in a family of culture and refinement. The little girl aged 5 asked her father, “If you had met Margaret Sanger before I was born, would I be here now?” Her father answered, “Yes, you would be here; you are here because we wanted you.”
The birth control movement must go on until every parent in India, in America, in every country in the world, is able to make such an answer to his children.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project