Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control," Aug 1936.
Published article. Source: The Theosophist, August 1936, pp. 420-425. , Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College .
This is the first of a two-part published version of a speech Sanger gave to the Theosophical Society in Adyar, India. For the second part, see "Birth Control," The Theosophist, Sept. 1936, pp. 507-11.
Adyar [India] January 8, 1936. Both Dr. Arundale and Shrimati Rukmini heartily welcomed Mrs. Sanger, the President remarking: “She is one of the few in the world who are really pioneers for the right. She is one of that small band of people all over the world, each of whom has suffered for the right and therefore has all the more right to speak to us and to lead us forward to the future.” Mrs. Sanger said:
I think I have a very large number of friends here because members of The Theosophical Society, especially in America and England, were some of the very first people who had the courage in the very early days--when we were knocking at the doors about twenty years ago--to come and give us their support. I feel that it is not quite by chance or accident that I am here. I think also I am in a way only holding together the threads of the work that was started by that great and noble woman, Dr. Annie Besant, in England in the beginning of her life when she, as a young pioneer interested in the sufferings of humanity, stirred and really awakened public opinion in England regarding this question of the sufferings of women. It was not known as birth control, and perhaps it did not have the same definition. Like so many movements started at that time, it marked time for a generation, until someone else took up the work again and it spread out more widely than it had in the beginning.
It was for me in 1914 to come upon the horizon, as some of my friend have said, “with three children under one arm and a wild look in my eye.” I came forth really believing that all one would have to do would be to tell the story of the sufferings and hardships of thousands and thousands of poor women to whom maternity had become a yoke and a burden, to tell about these hardships, and the world would help them to be released into freedom from this bondage through the scientific knowledge of contraception.
Birth control is the conscious control of the birthrate by means that prevent the conception of life. That is the definition of birth control. Note the three words “prevent,” “control” and “conscious.” When you prevent, you do not take life, you do not kill, you do not interfere with the development of life, because life has not begun and there had not been the fusion of the two cells of life. So consequently there is no more of interference with the development of life than there is when you remain unmarried or live in continence or celibacy.
“Control” means that you do not have to limit unless you so desire. You may limit, but “control” does not necessarily mean to limit. When you control the size of the family, you control it in consideration of the mother’s health, the father’s earning power, his capacity, and the standard of living that you wish to maintain. When you control your automobile, you do not have to stop the engine. When you control the fire in your stove, you do not have to put it out. We control traffic, our emotions, our appetites, out tempers; nearly everything in the world today is controlled, which means an intellectual application of knowledge.
“Conscious”--conscious birth. No longer shall the race be brought into being through the recklessness or abandon of the moment, but considered, planned for, wanted and loved, not only after individuals are born or while they are on the way to being born, but before they have been conceived. When once we begin to consider our children as invited guests and not as policemen over us, then truly shall we begin to usher in a new race, and I firmly believe that greater things are in store for the human race when this consideration takes place.
Controlling the birthrate, controlling the size of the family, does not mean, as I have already said, not to have children or to have only a certain number, but it also means to help those who are unable to have children. That is what we have been doing; in all the clinics which have been established in America and England, we pay a great deal of attention to the conditions of those women who come to us hoping that they may bring a child into the world. Sometimes it is a very simple thing that we are able to do to help them on the positive side. Control does not mean by any means always the limitation on the negative side. It does mean control: having children and not having them depending upon the circumstances.
The idea of birth control is not new, though the methods may be new. When you look back and check through our evolutionary period, you see there has always been some form of control. Nature has certainly been the most strenuous advocate of birth control with the hardest and most ruthless of methods. Disease, famine, pestilence, crimes, wars, have been the means of balancing our populations, thinning out the weak, sick, old, feeble, those who are unable to compete in the struggle for existence. This is the method of nature. As we move on a little and see where man has become more conscious in his evolution, we find him doing away with nature’s methods and using an even crueller means--infanticide. Through the study of infanticide--where living children were killed, and not only by unmarried women but by married women as well--we find, extraordinary as it seems, that all the punishment and threats of damnation and hell did not put an end to the practice. Up to the end of the eighteenth century in middle western Europe infanticide was till practiced. And not until a knowledge of abortion became fairly general did the practice of infanticide die down. So do I believe that the practice of abortion will not go out until knowledge of contraception becomes generally available to all married adults.
So you can see that there has always been some means of contraception, but now the question is, which shall it be? Shall we allow our death rate to increase in order to balance the population, or shall we decrease the birthrate intelligently, sensibly, humanely? We know that civilization has gone beyond letting diseases, famines, pestilences, floods, and war make the cure, because science with its sanitation methods has come to take their place. But instead of studying the scientific method, instead of getting down to the root of most of our social problems and giving people a chance to think, to be, to develop, we make it almost necessary for them to increase their numbers through ignorance and thereby to increase their problems as well.
On the other hand, we have groups of people who have some knowledge of birth control methods, who apply them to their lives--the intelligent, the skilled, the educated, the cultured, the well--to--do in nearly every country in the world. In these groups we find few children, that is, two, three, four, or perhaps five. When you look at these groups you will find among them almost the best of humanity we have today. Certainly they present the fewest of our social problems. Among them maternal mortality is almost nil. The children do not go to factories but to trade schools, high schools, and universities. It is out of that group that most of the cultured movements are initiated, and through them almost all the religious organizations are maintained and directed. Nearly everything of value we have today comes from these groups with the small families, or we might call them the “controlled family groups.”
Other groups present a most striking contrast, the groups with large families, frequent pregnancies, all going hand and hand with misery, ignorance, poverty, and disease in a vicious circle. You have there mothers dying because they have not the resistance, strength, and vitality. You have women with heart disease, kidney disease, goitres, not even protected through medical care from pregnancy. Legally an interruption of pregnancy is allowed to save the life of a woman, but the poorest woman does not seem to have this information or skill or service available for her. All the social problems of the western world come from these groups. Instead of going down to the bottom and finding the source of the trouble and trying to cure it, we attempt relief by a little palliative philanthropy. We send nurses and social workers to the home to tell the mother of twelve how best to have her thirteenth child when perhaps she should never have had the fifth. What she wants to know is how not to have the fifth. We go on with this so--called philanthropy, building up institutions, putting a tremendous drain of debt on the intelligent, those who are striving to keep up the standards and educate the children. The burden of these ignorant groups is definitely on the backs of the others through the taxes levied to support philanthropy.
Some have accused the practice of birth control as a cause of a falling or unbalanced birthrate. If there is an unbalanced birthrate, it is because birth control is not more widely known. You can never take knowledge away. Naturally the people of intelligence are the first to take advantage of any knowledge by which they can increase their happiness, and through which they may develop, but even if the use of knowledge does begin with the intelligent classes, it does not mean that it must end there. Then another objection is that birth control is used for selfish purposes. I have seen too many women, thousands and thousands from all countries and classes, to believe for a moment that selfishness is at the bottom of their practice of the control of the birthrate. I think there is a much more pertinent reason than that. Those parents who use means of contraception do so first for the sake of their children. That is the first consideration: to give their children a chance, to let them be individuals, and not to crowd them together, but to give them as good, if not a better opportunity than they themselves had.
Some of the opponents say that birth control is going to be misused and it is against nature. Perhaps it is against nature; many scientific things are against nature--the conquering and control of nature. Nearly all the things we are doing today for our health, eye-glasses and dental work, are controlling nature and combating nature and nature’s destructive means. So I think we must turn aside and not consider that because birth control is against nature it must not be used.
I think the only two questions that deserve serious consideration are: first are the means and methods injurious to those who use them; and second will birth control increase immorality? Those are two serious considerations that must be taken up wherever there is a definite campaign.
As to health, I think at last we can speak with truth and with experience. In 1914 when the work began, all that I could do was to say what I believed, bringing statistics from Holland where a knowledge of the means of contraception had been disseminated for over forty-four years. There I found much help in visualizing what was the effect of the dissemination of such knowledge. Holland had clinics with midwives and nurses in charge, and over the whole were members of the medical profession. This work was carried on under the auspices of certain groups, who had an excellent plan to save the lives of the mothers as well as the lives of the children. Their plan was to follow the infant mortality rate, and wherever there was a child registered and reported as having passed on they sent their social worker into that village and home to see that mother and to report the conditions and what the mother said. They asked her, “Do you want another baby right away or do you want to wait until the shock is over and you are in a better condition?” If she so desired, they then paid her railway fare to the nearest clinic where she was given proper information and instruction.
What happened? Within five years after the first birth control clinic was established, the birthrate and deathrate were carefully checked in the given area where it had been in operation, and it was noticed that conditions were changing. The infant deathrate was jumping down, and the maternal deathrate was following. The number of children in the schools was increasing. They found the birthrate also was falling, very quickly, but they were wise enough to see that if conditions were improved in one centre, they would be better in others. Then within a few years almost all of Holland, except a Catholic section in the North, had this information available. It was very interesting to me to go there in 1915 and find that that was the one section that birth control had not invaded and there they had child labor. The mother’s deathrate after pregnancies persisted in the natural succession. There you found, and still find, all the conditions the rest of Holland had wiped out. Holland considers that the health problem has been very much helped by the proper means of contraception for mothers.
I came back to America feeling I should shout from the highest office building what I had found out in Holland. Here was something that would help the women of America. We now have 225 birth control clinics throughout the country. Fifty thousand women passed through my own clinic and we now definitely know the facts. No longer is there any guess work or supposition. We can say positively, since our women are checked every one or two years, coming back to the doctor for that purpose, that a great many are in better condition physically and nervously.
Also we must not forget the fear of pregnancy in a country like America where there is much tension of the nerves, a great amount of excitement, a high standard of living under keenly competitive conditions and ambitions for every mother’s children. All this means that the woman is in a certain nervous condition if she is constantly afraid of another pregnancy that she is not ready for. Most of the women coming to the clinics are in such a nervous state, which continues until they can space their children, thus taking their time to have the children they can plan for. It is conducive to better health.
Certainly when it comes to family relations and preserving harmony in the home, even the social workers almost give up trying to get a hold of a family of four children or over unless the woman can go to the clinic and definitely be instructed in the practice of birth control. When the woman is having constant pregnancies one after another, she is growing old without time to give to her children, to keep them off the street, to keep them away from criminals and out of the juvenile courts, and so the social agencies realize they cannot give much help to such women. This question of health, we can now answer very definitely.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project