Margaret Sanger, "A Question of Privilege," Oct 1949.

Published Article. Source: Women United, Oct. 1949, pp. 6-8. .

For a draft version see MSM S72:585.

A Question of Privilege

By Margaret Sanger

Philosophers have often commented on the fact that mankind seems to be so constituted that we destroy those things which we most cherish. Certainly it is true of the ideal of parenthood. Hardly anyone would deny that the bringing of new life into the world and rearing it to maturity is one of the most satisfying and uplifting of human experiences. Yet innumerable tragedies, incalculable misery have been inflicted upon men, women and the children themselves in the name of parenthood.

Attitudes and the Family

Much of the unhappiness stems from two attitudes toward the family. One is that children are a right and a duty. The other is that they are sent by a fate against which it is useless to struggle. Actually, of course, children are a privilege and a responsibility.

It is only when we appreciate this fact that the basis of sound, healthy family life can be paid. It is the basis on which the Planned Parenthood movement is founded. When it first began more than a generation ago as a crusade for birth control, it was because we who were in the forefront of that early fighting realized that parenthood was a privilege that should be granted with complete equality.

A Plan for All

In those days--and still today, although perhaps on a somewhat lesser scale--it was a privilege for the well-to-do and the well educated. For the privilege of having children carries with it the meaning that the children are wanted by their parents, planned for and cared for. Wives and mothers with access to the best medical help were able to exercise this privilege. But this was not true of their poorer and less fortunate sisters.

The birth control movement was an effort to extend this privilege to all. Since my sister and I founded our first clinic in a Brooklyn slum in 1916, the idea has spread until now there are more than 500 clinics, and many of them are maintained by public health services.

Tragic Statistics

But we are far from having achieved real equality. It remains true that information about and access to birth control methods is denied to whole segments of our society to whom it is more important. We have only to look at the maternal and infant death rates of Negro mothers and babies in this country to see that this is true.

The death rate of Negro mothers is three times as high as that of whites. The stillbirth ratio is twice as high among Negroes. Nor are Negroes the only underprivileged people in our society. In Puerto Rico, the maternal death rate is nearly twice that of the continental United States, the infant death rate more than double.

Not Birth Control Alone...

Birth control, of course, is not the sole reason. The fact that on the average Negroes have less access to hospitalization and medical care in childbirth plays its part. But countless studies have shown that mothers die in childbirth because they have a pregnancy when their health is undermined, and would not die if they had been able to practice birth control until their health is restored. The studies show that the stillbirth rate rises with fantastic speed after a fourth child so that it is in these large families that we so often hear: “Eleven babies, but four of them born dead.”

The knowledge and privilege of voluntary parenthood is denied these mothers, along with a great many other privileges that command more attention publicly but are of far less real importance to the families themselves. But it is not enough to deplore the situation and condemn the blindness, folly and downright evil that has brought it about. The real answer to the problem is to do something about it.

What To Do About It

Everyone, especially through organizations, churches, clubs, can help. Here, for example, is the kind of a program that should be established in every community:

1. Control of conception as an essential feature of maternal and child health should be part of every public health clinic and every hospital that has a delivery room. Such services will be established only when the public, the mothers and the fathers, the organizations and the people generally demand it. The basic battles have been won; the United States Public Health Service now gives State requests for funds to establish conception control programs the same consideration as any other health need.

2. Civic minded groups of every community should include in their programs the education of their members and the public in the importance of birth control to the family, to the nation and to the world. Through them we would win not only education for those who need it now but the next generation would grow up better prepared for the responsibilities and the joys of marriage and parenthood. Preparation for family life begins in the cradle. The home, the school and the church all have a share in developing the individual’s attitude toward marriage. When the preparation is well done, we have young couples who are keenly aware of their duties as well as their privileges.

3. Medical and nursing professions, social workers, welfare departments should give their workers training in the basic facts of Planned Parenthood. Through the doctors, the public health workers and the others, we can achieve a far better service to the married couples of the community and a better understanding of parenthood.

4. Intelligent and generous support of research of this field is needed. Unfortunately, the physiology and the psychology of human procreation are almost unexplored territory. We know a great deal more about the facts of reproduction in race horses and white mice, hybrid corn and orchids than we do about ourselves. William Vogt, in this brilliant book “The Road to Survival” says that the discovery of a completely reliable, simple and inexpensive contraceptive is as important as atomic energy and would be well wroth the two billion dollars spent to develop the atom bomb. This is almost as true within our own country as it is of the world at large. The international problem of population is more acute than that of the United States. But it is a question of degree. Furthermore, our own country can hardly be either safe or prosperous for very long in a world where population in most places has outstripped the resources to support that population. Yet, while there are peoples who need this ideal contraceptive more than we do, that does not minimize the importance of it to those millions of our own who are in the same family predicament as the Chinese or the Indians.

Experience and Observations

In seeking to put such a program into effect, the individual and the group can do more than they think, when they first measure their own puny strength against the magnitude of the problem. Furthermore, there is no civic progress to which women’s organizations can contribute with more satisfaction to themselves or benefit to their fellows. From my own experience and observations of the long fight for birth control and family happiness, I have reached these conclusions:

Parents should avoid having children if either parent has a transmissible disease because no mother or father wants to see their children helpless, devoid of physical or mental development.

Every child should be spaced from two to three years to insure the living child nourishment, care, love and a place in the affection of its parents, before another comes to take from it, its natural inheritance.

Young people should marry early but postpone parenthood for two years after marriage to secure a firm foundation of love and companionship in marriage before they usher a new life into being to share that environment.

Fewer children, better healthier children in any family helps to establish higher standards and bring peace on earth, good will to men over the entire face of the globe.

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Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project