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

Published Article. Source: The Thinker Oct. 1923, pp. 59-61. , Margaret Sanger Microflm C16:0201 .

This is the first of a six part series. Only five articles have been located. For the second article, see A Better Race Through Birth Control, Nov. 1923; for the third article see Woman and Birth Control, Dec. 1923; and for following articles see Birth Control in China and Japan, Feb. 1924 and The Birth Control Movement in 1923, Apr. 1924.


By Margaret Sanger, 104 5th Ave., New York City

(Complete in Six Articles)


No great problem affecting the welfare of nations and races has been so misinterpreted and misunderstood, even by men who consider themselves well informed, as that of population and Birth Control. Advocates of Birth Control do not ask merely for assent and approval. They demand investigation and understanding as the initial steps toward support of and adherence to their doctrine.

Much of the opposition to Birth Control has had its source among clergymen and other professional moralists. This ecclesiastic opposition is the more surprising in view of the fact that the “only true begetter” of the whole Birth Control movement was Robert Malthus, himself a clergyman of the Church of England. He advocated prudential checks which called for the most austere morality. Our clergical opponents also ignore the fact that many of the most noted champions of Birth Control today are clergymen. The most distinguished example is the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, the Very Reverend William Ralph Inge.

The backbone of the Birth Control movement, from the time that Malthus first published his epoch-making “Essay on Population,” has been essentially Anglo-Saxon. John Stuart Mill, Francis Place, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Huxley and our own great men--Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert G. Ingersoll, all spoke openly in favor of the control of population. Today such thinkers and writers as H. G. Wells, Harold Cox (Editor of the Edinburgh Review) Arnold Bennett, Dean Inge, William Archer, Havelock Ellis, Gilbert Murray, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes (Editor of the London Nation), E. W. McBride, and Lord Dawson (the King’s Physician) and innumerable others in Great Britain speak openly and valiantly for Birth Control.

The present movement in this country must not be confused with the Neo-Malthusian movement in Great Britain and on the Continent of Europe. In England the Neo-Malthusian League was the direct outcome of the celebrated trial of Charles Bradlaugh and Mrs. Annie Besant, who had openly and in the face of the authorities distributed among the English poor thousands upon thousands of copies of pamphlet by a Boston physician, Dr. Knowlton, entitled “The Fruits of Philosophy”--a pamphlet originally published in 1833 in this country. The Neo-Malthusian League, sponsored by those valiant pioneers, Charles and George Drysdale and Dr. Alice Vickery, soon spread its influence to all parts of the Continent. In Holland its doctrines were openly put into practice, and fifty-three Birth Control clinics, approved by the Dutch Government, have been conducted there with great success for forty years.

The Birth Control movement, which has now absorbed the earlier Neo-Malthusian movement, originated in New York, just a decade ago. While the Neo-Malthusians based their propaganda on Malthus’s theory of Population and earnestly discussed the scientific aspects of the question, the slogan “Birth Control” was put forward in my little paper of advanced feminism, Woman Rebel, and was used as the battle cry of fundamental rights in the fight for the emancipation of the working woman. The response was so immediate and overwhelming that a league was formed--the first Birth Control League in the world.

With the flame-like ardor of pioneers we did not at first realize the full scope of our campaign. At that time I knew nothing of Malthus, nothing of the courageous and desperate battle waged by the Drysdales in England, Rutgers in Holland, G. Hardy and Paul Robin in France, for this century-old doctrine. I was merely thinking of the poor mothers of the East side who had so poignantly begged me for relief, in order that the children they already had brought into the world might have a chance to grow into strong and stalwart Americans. It was almost impossible to believe that the dissemination of knowledge easily available to intelligent and thoughtful parents of the well-to-do classes was actually a criminal act, proscribed not only by State laws but by Federal laws as well.

My paper was suppressed. I was arrested and indicted in the Federal court. But, owing to the vigorous protests of the public and to an appeal sent by a number of distinguished English writers and thinkers, the case against me was finally dismissed.

Meanwhile Birth Control, as the slogan of the movement, not only spread through the American press from coast to coast, but immediately gained currency in Great Britain. Succinctly and with telling brevity these two words sum up our whole philosophy. Birth Control does not mean contraception indiscriminately practised. It means the release and cultivation of the better elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extinction, of defective stocks--those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.

Birth Control aims to introduce into the creation of the next generation of American citizens the 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 numbers. As long as we wilfully, as a nation, waste the most precious resources we have--our child life-- let us hold our tongues about the dangers of Birth Control. The advocates of Birth Control place a higher value on the life of a child than do its opponents. We want every child born in this country to bring with it the heritage of health and fine vitality. This is the true wealth of our United States.

The first Birth Control clinic in this country was established in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1916. It had but a brief existence. It was raided by the police and its founders sentenced to jail as petty miscreants but it is not without significance that , since then, there has been an immense recrudescence of interest in the persistent problem of population, and that a number of new efforts have been made--notably by A. M. Carr-Sanders, to reinterpret the thesis for which so massive a foundation was laid by that obscure clergyman, Thomas Malthus. The whole current of opinion in regard to the question has advanced, not merely in this country and in England, but all over the world. The results of the intelligence tests, the menace of indiscriminate immigration, the fertility of the unfit, and the increasing burden upon the healthful and vigorous members of American society of the delinquent and dependent classes, together with the growing danger of the abnormal fecundity of the feeble-minded, all emphasize the necessity of clear-sightedness and courage in facing the problem, and throw new light on the possibilities of Birth Control as a practical and powerful weapon against national and racial decadence.

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 fulfil. It is in answer to those unfortunate and conscripted mothers that we have banded ourselves together in the American Birth Control League.

(To be continued)

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