Margaret Sanger, "The Pope's Position on Birth Control," 27 Jan 1932.

Published article. Source: The Nation, Jan. 27, 1932 [Vol. 135, No. 3473]: 102-104. , Margaret Sanger Microfilm C16:324. .


For a draft version see Library of Congress Microfilm 130:175 and 136:351B; for typed versions see Library of Congres Microfilm 136:520A and Margaret Sanger Microfiolm S71:367.

The Pope's Position on Birth Control

By MARGARET SANGER

One third of the women who come to the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York are Catholics and the remainder are about equally divided between Protestants and Jews. This has been so for several years, and it indicates that, at least in one important locality, religious affiliation makes no difference one way or the other in the practice of birth control. However, the official teaching of the Catholic church, even though ignored by many of its members, is sometimes an obstacle to general approval of the birth-control movement by political leaders unwilling to oppose the authorities of that church.

My own position is that the Catholic doctrine is illogical, not in accord with science, and definitely against social welfare and race improvement. I hope to make this clear by analyzing the statements of Pope Pius IX in his encyclical letter “Of Chaste Marriage,” which was issued about a year ago.

Evidently the Pope was alarmed by the rapid advance of the birth-control movement, for he complains that an “utterly perverse” morality is “gradually gaining ground,” and “has begun to spread even among the faithful.” He therefore instructs the faithful how to regulate their conjugal life without the benefit of science and according to theories written by St. Augustine, also a bachelor, who died fifteen centuries ago. All through the encyclical the Pope lays stress on authority. He alludes to himself as one “whom the Father has appointed over His field,” and holds that the Catholic Church is the only authorized guardian and interpreter of a “divine law” applying to marriage. Some of these assertions may be questioned by theologians, but be that as it may, let us try to follow the Pope’s reasoning about conjugal matters.

To begin with, he admits that sexual desire is in itself something that can at least claim respectful consideration. This appears in the following passage:

“For in matrimony.... there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence, which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.”

Since “the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children,” we understand that when husband and wife experience the sexual urge, they may act in the natural way providing the aim is to make the woman pregnant. But would the Pope permit intercourse in cases where pregnancy is impossible, as, for instance, after a woman has passed beyond the age of child bearing? He says:

“Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner, although on account of natural reasons, either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth.”

Thus even good Catholics are not always forbidden to perform the sexual act for other purposes than procreation. It is permitted in cases of barrenness, sterility, after the woman has already become pregnant, and after the menapause.

It would be interesting to know whether or not the Pope thinks that husband and wife under other circumstances than those above listed ought to limit their sexual life to a single act for each pregnancy, on the theory that the act is only for procreation. In other words, must a couple, during the child-bearing years, limit themselves to one act (assuming fruitfulness) and one child every year or two? Evidently the Pope has enough sense of humor not to tackle this phase of his moral problem. Common sense, however, tells us that here again the Catholics themselves doubtless permit a vast disproportion between the comparatively great number of “quietings of concupiscence” and the comparatively small number of resulting pregnancies. Furthermore, I believe it is a fact that the desire for a child frequently comes to men and women at moments when they feel no sexual longing, while, on the other hand, the spontaneous physical and emotional urge for intercourse is seldom accompanied by a specific desire for a child.

How many children should there be in a family? The Pope quotes the Biblical “Increase and multiply and fill the earth,” together with the endorsement of the good St. Augustine, who died a thousand years before America was discovered. It strikes me that St. Augustine, however, is not a true believer in the doctrine, for I understand that he had only one son (illegitimate) and that he said, “No fruitfulness of the flesh can be compared to holy virginity.” The Pope declares further:

But Christian parents must also understand that they are destined not only to propagate and preserve the human race on earth, indeed, not only to educate any kind of worshipers of the true God, but children who are to become members of the Church of Christ, to raise up fellow-citizens of the saints and member of God’s household, that the worshipers of God and our Savior may daily increase.

To repeat these two points in everyday language, the Pope commands married women to bear numerous children, (a) to fill the earth, and (b) to increase the membership in the Catholic Church.

Assuming that God does not want an increasing number of worshipers of the catholic faith, does he also want an increasing number of feeble-minded, insane, criminal, and diseased worshipers? That is unavoidable if the Pope is obeyed, because, as we shall see, he forbids every single method of birth control except continence, a method which the feeble-minded, insane, and criminal will not use.

Suppose that a couple want to have children, but only a few. Suppose that they wish to space the births so that one baby can get well started in life before the other one comes. Suppose that the mother’s physical condition makes it dangerous, and possibly fatal, for her to bear another child. Suppose that poverty makes limitation desirable. What can they do about it? Separate legally? No. But they can separate physically and spiritually by practicing continence.

A word about nature is needed here. Conception takes place through the combination of an ovum with a sperm. Sperms are microscopic seeds introduced from the man’s body by the million in a single sexual act. Nature herself wastes almost all of these millions of sperms. But if a single sperm joins up with an ovum, one of the microscopic seeds which are produced by the woman’s ovaries, the result is conception. From this beginning grows the embyro which in time becomes a child.

Remember that no new life begins unless there is conception. Keep the sperm away from the ovum and there will be no conception. The Pope approves the prevention of conception by keeping men and women apart, which means that he does not think it wrong for ova and sperms to grow and die by the millions without producing new life. The Pope even permits married couples to prevent sperms from meeting ova by refraining from intercourse. He calls this “virtuous continence,” and he adds, “which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent.”

Just think of that. If the husband does not consent to continence, the wife has to keep on getting pregnant unless she disobeys the Pope by using contraceptives. Incidentally, unless I am misinformed, American wives in certain States are not entitled to support from their husbands if they refuse conjugal intimacy. There have been many decisions to this effect, I believe.

I believe that continence is one of the surest ways of breaking up marriage. It is the denial of love, the frustration of nature. Furthermore, in many cases, according to medical science, continence in marriage is positively harmful to health if practiced for any length of time. It can bring on serious nervous derangement. Although it may be acceptable to certain individuals as a method of birth control, it cannot wisely be recommended for general use.

We come now to the subject of contraception. Contraception means keeping the sperms away from the ova during and after the sexual act and thus preventing conception. Various methods of contraception have been widely used all over the civilized world for a long time, but they are all condemned by the Pope. He says in the encyclical:

Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.

In another paragraph he calls contraception a “sin against nature.” He even tries to frighten Catholics by declaring that God sometimes kills people for preventing conception. Reference is made to a Biblical story. The Pope says, “...when the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Judah, did this, and the Lord killed him for it.” The argument is entirely misleading. Read the story of Genesis XXXVIII, and you will see that God killed Onan because he refused to have a child by the widow of his brother, whom God had killed. If Onan had tried continence instead of another method he would have been slain just as promptly.

Before going farther I wish to quote the very Reverend W. R. Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, who has written that “the real alternative to birth control is abortion.” It is an alternative that I cannot too strongly condemn. Although abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother, the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious. I bring up the subject here only because some ill-informed persons have the notion that when we speak of birth control we include abortion as a method. We certainly do not. Abortion destroys the already fertilized ovum or the embryo; contraception, as I have carefully explained, prevents the fertilizing of the ovum by keeping the male cells away. Thus it prevents the beginning of life.

The contention that it is sin to have dominion over nature is simple nonsense. The Pope frustrates nature by getting shaved and having his hair cut, as well as by practicing continence. Whenever we catch a fish or shoot a wolf or a lamb, whenever we pull a weed or prune a tree, we frustrate nature. Disease germs are perfectly natural little fellows which must be frustrated before we can get well. Nature frustrates her own processes by the most astounding wastage, as we have already seen in the case of the sperms and ova, which she produces for the man and the woman by the million only to let them perish.

When the Pope speaks about nature he seems to forget that the human mind is also part of nature. The thoughts we think and the emotions we feel are the work of nature. He does not seem to realize that the enjoyment in sexual intercourse is largely psychical. It is a mental and spiritual as well as a physical enjoyment. The stronger the love and the finer the characters of the married pair, the greater is this psychical enjoyment during intercourse. To impose continence is to prevent the finest union of love, to frustrate mental and spiritual nature in its urge toward perfection. Contraception in no way interferes with the oneness which is most necessary--even though the Pope calls it a secondary end--to the preservation of married happiness.

But the Pope has no respect for the mental powers of the individual. He writes:

Wherefore, let the faithful also be on their guard against the overrated independence of private judgment and that false autonomy of human reason. For it is quite foreign to everyone bearing the name of Christian to trust his own mental powers with such pride as to agree only with those things which he can examine from their inner nature... a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered and unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals of the holy Church of God, through its supreme pastor, the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ our Lord.

That is what the Pope says. Now let us see what Jesus says. St. Matthew quotes Him thus: “Have ye not read that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?” St. Mark quotes the same statement. But did Jesus say that every wife had to bear children as fast as they would come? Did He ever advocate rearing large families as a duty toward God? Did he ever say anything against the limitation of offspring? Did He ever say anything that by any twist of argument can be interpreted to mean that He disapproved of contraception? If He did, why does not the Pope cite chapter and verse?

Having answered, point by point, those parts of the Pope’s encyclical which refer to birth control, I want to add that his attitude in general seems to be conditioned by a disapproval of human enjoyment and an apparent relishing of the theory that suffering is good for our souls. He speaks of himself as “looking with paternal eye...as from a watch-tower.” It is a tower set in splendor, surrounded by walls that shut out the world of broken homes, of sick and sorrow-laden mothers, poverty-stricken fathers, and pathetic, unwanted children. In that remote tower he sits comfortably, takes counsel from a pile of old books and from bachelor advisers, and then writes scolding sermons about the marriage problems of intelligent people. I wish he could come down into real life for a few weeks, walk the earth and mingle with the poor “ye have always with you.” He would hear true stories from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish women which I should think would be enough to shake sense into the head of any man.

As for the Catholic political opposition to our proposed amendment of an obnoxious federal law, I contend that if the Catholic church cannot force its member to obey the Pope’s commands regarding birth control without the help of the United States government, that is a good omen for our cause. The birth control movement grows in strength and wisdom despite religious objections and legal handicaps. It advances because it supplies a human need, and it cannot stop, because that need never ceases.

No philanthropic cause today offers the benefactor a finer opportunity for service which will at the same time relieve individual suffering, promote social welfare, and tend to improve the race in America.


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Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project


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