Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control and Society," [Apr.-June 1916] .
Typed draft speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress , Library of Congress Microfilm 128:456 .
This draft was one of the texts Sanger used during her 1916 American speaking tour. For other speeches from that tour, see "Birth Control (Chicago Address to Women)," "Woman and Birth Control," Apr.-June, 1916, and "Condemnation is Misunderstanding."
What would the general practice of Birth Control do for Society? This seems to be the question that all of us should carefully consider. Not only should we consider society as it is today but the society of the future state, and the effects the practice of birth control may have in bringing about a cleaner and better race.
First let me state that I believe birth control to be a great racial step forward illegible, because the desire for this knowledge is already here, women and men want it and are willing and anxious to put it into practice when the laws against so doing shall be removed. Almost all other reforms and advanced ideas have to be agitated for and the desire to accept them implanted within the hearts of the people, but here we have a condition where the economic condition has done all the pioneering for us. The people are far in advance of the laws which continue to hold them in this slavery.
The Government of the United States is the only Government in the world which imposes a morality upon its citizens.
Contrary to all the fundamental principles of a great Republic, and especially this republic, for the early founders and revolutionists made it clear that a state had no more right to impose a morality upon a people than it had to impose a religion or a political issue.
Neither the law nor the penalty imposed by the law can make people moral. We ask the United States to make terms with Progress, with human needs, in fact with Civilization, and no greater service can be rendered to society than to break the chains of woman's sex subjection. Knowledge to control birth is the key to that dissolution.
There is no greater insult hurled at American womanhood than that which our law makers and moralists imply when they say that knowledge to control birth would lead to unchastity among them. What an insult to the Nine million women who are living lives of sexual purity to day in this country, to suggest that it is the fear of childbirth which keeps them celibate.
What have we as a country, with laws against imparting this information to control birth, in comparison with other countries where the same information is easily obtainable?
Let us first begin with domestic happiness. In no other country has the growth of divorce been so remarkable or caused so much discussion as in USA. From 1886 to 1906 nearly one million marriages were dissolved. Recent figures as near as can be obtained state that there are now close upon 85000 divorces granted each year. I claim that ninety percent of these misunderstandings have their root in the sex problem where the fear of pregnancy is ever a present terror.
Then we have the problem of prostitution which seems to hold its own with other countries not so "advanced" as ourselves, while the feeble minded among these unfortunate victims are so numerous that our institutions can not accomodate their increasing numbers. It is also stated by recent and reliable authorities that the fertility of the feeble minded parent is four times that of the normal parent.
The insane institutions also record a tremendous increase in their institutions during the past few years and I have been told that twenty five cents of every dollar collected in New York City goes toward the upkeep of the insane asylums.
Both these insane asylums and feeble minded institutions are modern monuments to careless and reckless breeding on the part of the working classes. Not only in Holland but in New Zealand do we find a constructive work going among the people to disseminate knowledge of Birth Control among the poor.
For thirty years this work has been carried on in Holland and New Zealand in both of these countries we find infant mortality the lowest in the world while prostitution is almost negligible.
In Holland the right of personal liberty involves three rights: the right of civilized man to have children; the right to limit their number; and the right to have none at all if physically or financially unable to do so. They consider the woman who continues to make of herself a child bearing machine a most primitive type and quite undesirable.
We in this country are proud of our boasted freedom and liberty, but it is generally known throughout Europe that most of our liberties are a farce. We have a political and religious liberty but individual moral liberty must yet be fought for here before we can progress in art literature or in human understanding.
We have amid us the most advanced equipment in telegraph, telephone, laboratories which modern science has advanced, and yet our courts continue to give out opinions and sentences relating to birth control as were given in the days of the sixteenth century when women were burned at the stake as witches because they did not comply with the religious opinion of the day.
Birth control is the keynote to a new social awakening, an awakening of the parent to its responsibility toward its offspring. An awakening of individuals toward the consequences of their acts. Could Society want any greater morality? Is it not for this same responsibility in individuals that education of the past generations has been striving toward? Yet we find ourselves unable to advance because of laws. Laws, stupid laws, worn out and obsolete, useless to humanity in fact a powerful detriment. Yet we say laws are the creation of men. Let us change them then to suit modern times and progress. What folly to adhere so stubbornly to old and obsolete dogmas that were a creation of a preceeding generation. We might as well object to modern railways because the stage coach was used by our grandparents. Society must see things AS THEY ARE if it would progress, and wemeet the facts of the times.
I believe that birth control when disseminated among the working people who are less able to carry the burdens of the race than any other class, would help to reduce immediately the present burden upon the man and woman with their insufficient small existing wage. It would wipe out charity, an institution so destructive to self respect and independence in the working class. It would enable the working man and woman to be better educated and consequently more efficient to develop for their emancipation.
It would enable the children of the workers to be better nourished and better educated preparing them in turn to become something better than wage slaves. It would positively do away with child labor.
It would reduce competition among the workers, and if carried on internationally it would raise labor power to its rightful plane whereby the intelligent workers would be the controlling factors in the world.
The problems of overcrowding with its serious moral and hygienic dangers would diminish and a solution made at least possible.
In every way moral physical and spiritual society would be benefitted by the practice of birth control.
Someone has said "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link" and so is society and the human race it is only what its individuals are. When we make a clean intelligent and strong individual today, then and only then can we look for or expect a strong clean and intelligent society.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project