Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control Crusade Marches On," Aug 1936.

Published Article. Source: The Clubwoman Aug. 1936, pp. 6, 15 , Library of Congress Microfilm 128:373 .

For a draft version, see LCM 128:477; for a reprint issued by the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, see LCM 128:473.


BY MARGARET SANGER, President of the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control

Readers of The Clubwoman GFWC will recall that a year ago the General Federation of Women’s Clubs passed a resolution “endorsing the principles of birth control legislation.” By so doing, it took a stand which will affect for good the welfare and lives of thousands upon thousands of women, the happiness of millions of American families. It will especially help mothers in families on relief who are denied information in public hospitals.

The general concept of birth control--conscious parenthood, planned families, wanted children--is simple. Children should be born as a result of thoughtful choice on the part of the parents, and that choice should be made in accordance with the health of the mother, the earning power of the father, and an adequate period between births, to enable the mother to regain her strength and properly care for the family she already has.

These items seem to me--and to you--common sense and obvious. And a goodly company of men and women in all parts of the country and in all walks of life agree with us. The National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, of which I have the honor of being President, recently issued a list of organizations which have passed resolutions similar to that passed by the General Foundation. It covers, in small print, a sheet two feet long and a yard wide, and lists over 800 organizations, medical, religious, social, educational, and political, representing every State in the Union and almost every kind of group.

What, then, is the problem, if the need for legal and scientific birth control is so well recognized? Seventy years ago, the so-called Comstock laws were passed, classing “the prevention of conception” with obscenity and making it a serious crime, carrying a penalty of $5,000 fine or five years in prison, or both, for anyone to send through the mails or common carriers any information or article “designed, adapted, or intended” to prevent conception. The result has been that the entire matter has been pushed underground, has become confused and relegated to the class of back-fence gossip instead of being recognized as an important health service.

Progress, wonderful and inspiring in the face of opposition, has been made. In 1916, convinced that birth control instruction was a basic factor in social work, I opened a clinic in one of the poorest sections of Brooklyn, New York. It was immediately closed by the police as a “public nuisance” and my co-workers and I were carted off to jail. But seven years later, on the basis of a test case decision which permitted a doctor to give birth control instruction for “the cure and prevention of disease” in New York, we opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York City. It is today the oldest birth control clinic in America and the largest in the world, and has taken care of over 50,000 patients. There are now some 250 clinics in thirty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and Hawaii, but large areas of the country, particularly rural districts, are still without clinical service. No exact figures as to the number of women cared for per year are available, though it is known that 100 clinics (or “centers” as they are generally called) gave advice to 20,772 patients in 1935. Fine. . . splendid. . . we have gone a far way, and not an easy way, in a score of years.

But. . . alas, the “but” is large and tragic.

According to the most recent figures issued by the United States Children’s Bureau, 16,000 women die each year from “causes associated with pregnancy and childbirth,” and our maternal mortality rate is higher than any other country boasting vital statistics, with the exception of Scotland, Lithuania, and Northern Ireland. It is higher than Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland. . . truly this becomes a roll call of shame for the United States, for we are told that two deaths out of three are preventable.

Too frequent and too many pregnancies, and abortion, that tragic substitute for reliable birth control, are responsible for a large number of these preventable deaths. No lists of figures and complicated statistics are needed to show that nation-wide provision for scientific birth control advice would go far towards remedying this situation.

There are in America twenty-six million women of child-bearing age, and as mothers and potential mothers they should have access to birth control advice. Existing clinics, though their number gives cause for rejoicing, can do little more than point the way. The devoted service of all the clinic workers--doctors, social workers, nurses, finance committees, and so on--can care for only a fractional part of all the women who need this advice.

Whether we like it or not, we must accept the fact that present methods, if they are to be reliable and safe, demand medical supervision. We need, then, some action which will at one stroke enable hospitals, public health, and other governmental agencies throughout the country to establish birth control service, which will place the matter where it belongs, in the hands of the medical profession. We need to recognize birth control as a public health measure.

Cut through the Gordian knot which forces our legislators to wait for the doctors and our doctors wait for the legislators. The American Medical Association a year ago appointed a Committee to study the subject of birth control and report its findings. The report has just been issued, and, unfortunately, as it was summarized in the press, it seems to be a sweeping condemnation of birth control and the activities of the lay organizations which have not only educated the public but brought to the medical profession the methods which it uses in its practice today. A careful study of the report, however, shows that the doctors, as one would expect, recognize the need for reliable birth control. The report strengthens my conviction that a law exempting the medical profession from the restrictions of the present Comstock statutes would rectify the conditions which the doctors deplore.

“Voluntary limitation of conception may be necessary to safeguard the health of some women,” the doctors state. They also point out the inadequacy of present methods and suggest that more complete education in this field be given to medical students.

With a change in the law, with the removal of the confusion and taboos now existing, research will be stimulated and better methods, which we cannot at the present time even envisage, will undoubtedly be developed. Medical schools, freed from the restrictions (actual and psychological) imposed by the present law, will recognize the need for teaching future doctors about contraception, fertility, and all the medical problems of marriage, and hospitals will provide adequate clinical service.

Lastly, maternal and infant mortality will be reduced.

Women, who bear the children, have a right to knowledge of their own bodies, they have a right to conscious decision in undertaking the most important, and inspiring career in the world--motherhood. Freed from fear of unwanted pregnancies, freed from the dread of bringing into the world children whom they cannot adequately rear, the women of America will build ever happier families and better homes and create a new race.

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Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project