Margaret Sanger, " [Address to Pennsylvania Birth Control Leagues] ," 27 Feb 1929.
Typed Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress , LCM 128:446 .
Sanger gave this speech at an evening meeting which culminated a one day Combined Conference of the Pennsylvania Birth Control Federation and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Birth Control League. This meeting, held at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, was open to the public, and featured other speakers Rev. William H. Garth and Samuel Emlen.Words torn off on last page have been supplied.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: First I want to congratulate you and the Committee for bringing together this splendid Conference. During the years of my fight for Birth Control I have attended a large number of conferences both here and abroad, and it was indeed a great source of inspiration to come here today and to listen to the remarks and statements and to feel te advance that this movement has made.
I think the City of Philadelphia owes a vote of thanks to this Committee for bringing together this brilliant group of speakers to discuss the subject as it has been discussed today. After listening to some of the papers that I heard, I was reminded of something H. G. Wells said last year in talking about the advance of culture and intelligence. He said "I have one test of intelligence and that is the attitude of the man or woman on birth control, as that is the real test of intelligence," and I think if you heard, as I did, the statements made today and if you compared those statements and the attitude of mind to the same thoughts that were expressed at this sort of a conference years ago, if we would put these thoughts into the hands of the legislators it would be a great help and the opposition would be forced to come to some sort of a conclusion and let us hear what they have to say.
I would like to attend a conference of the opposition sometime but I never have been able to as I have never been invited, and I do not believe they ever had a conference. Now my purpose tonight is to say why I believe in birth control. I have written four books to say I do believe in it but I feel much like Lady Astor when she was running for Parliament. She made a statement that she had five children and the opposition said he was the father of eight and Lady Astor retorted "Never mind I haven't finished yet."
When I come to a conference of this kind I feel that four books are not enough and that there is material for others to come. Before I tell why I believe in birth control I would like to define what I believe birth control to be and I say it is the conscious control of the birth rate by means that prevent conception. Notice I say "prevent" and that does not mean to interfer it does not mean to take or destroy conception, it means to prevent and there is no more interference with life by preventing conception than there is in remaining single, in fact you do interfer with life by remaining single, but we cannot say that that destroys life. It does not, we ought to say control and as one of the speakers tonight mentioned control does not necessarily mean to limit it does not mean that when you control your furnace that you put the fire out. You can control your motor and that does not necessarily mean to stop it. Everything must be controlled, it is part and parcel of our civilization.
We control our minds, we control traffic, we control everything and why not control the birth rate? It is one of the tests of our progress in civilization.
First I believe in birth control because I believe in knowledge, I believe a man and woman should have available all knowledge and I believe with the poet who said "Let knowledge grow from morn to morn, Gain more of reverence as it grows."
Secondly I believe in birth control because I believe it is a health and economic expedient and that it is a great social principle and this principle is interlocked with culture ad spiritual progress of the race and its future.
Third I believe in birth control because civilization is confronted with two problems, that of the pressure of population upon the food supply and humanitarian efforts with race improvements.
All of you who listened to the discussion on welfare work and social science heard the tremendous amount that is spent on social welfare, on humanitarian efforts, and so far all of this has not meant a racial improvement, and to me birth control is the key to both of these problems.
We heard today that annually over five billions of dollars are spent on the direct prevention of poverty and it was said that four times that amount was spent indirectly. I have maintained for sometime that over nine billions were spent annually for dependent people and I say in my work as a trained nurse that this great expenditure did not mean a depressing of the demand in the future.
I often wonder why our business men don't look upon the subject as keenly as they do with other phases. You find a man who will do a great deal to invest for the future of his family, he will look into investments very carefully and cautiously and yet he does not realize that these nine billions or twenty billions spent today will mean thirty billions by the time his children are grown and that he is not safe-guarding his investments unless he pays attention to this great problem of charity.
I was again surprised that more attention was not given today to the great problem of maternal mortality. I was not here to attend all of the session this morning, but I did not hear anything said about it while I was here. Maternal mortality throughout the world has become a problem. It has not decreased and this is a fact not only in England and Australia but in the United States, it has increased.
Is it any wonder that it is increasing when women who are suffering from tuberculosis, heart and kidney disease are allowed to have children. It is a wicked shame a disgrace to civilization to withhold from these mothers contraceptive advice and information.
Everyone knows that the woman who has tuberculosis should not become a mother and she should not be allowed to become pregnant and the physician who is looking after that woman will tell her that "she must not get that way" but when she asks what she will do they shake their heads and say "Oh, be careful" that is the best they can do for her and then if she becomes pregnant the best they can do is to interrupt the pregnancy, and there seems to be no objection to that ethically, morally, socially or legally, and yet that could be avoided if they would give her advice and instruction and that is what she needs.
This matter of prevention seems to be far removed from the medical profession and they are only beginning to realize that that is the way to solve that problem. The women suffering from heart and kidney disease are in the same category and we have many of them coming to us in New York whom I believe would have been with the great army of mothers who have died if they had not been safe guarded with the proper instructions. There is also the question of infant mortality and while we have reduced it in the last ten years it is not enough. With all our efforts, with all our efficiency, with all our welfare organizations, especially for the relief of poverty and misery, why should we have infant and maternal mortality. We have reduced it but at what cost of millions of dollars, at the cost of the vitality of a great army of nurses and social workers who have dedicated their lives to this work when they might have been doing something constructive and something for their own development.
Infant mortality has been reduced but what are we really doing to wipe it out? We are doing just what we do in most everything, we lock the door after the horse has been stolen. We still have two hundred thousand infants who die before they reach one year of age and we still allow the father and mothers of those two hundred thousand infants remain in ignorance of how to prevent another two hundred thousand next year and over ninety percent of these will die of poverty and neglect.
We find that social service needs are increasing and the cost is increasing and that shows that we are not getting at the root of the problem, and I believe we will never wipe out infant mortality until we stop at the source the stream of unwanted and death doomed infants and you can never push back the stream with the broom of charity, but you have got to safe-guard mothers with safe, proper information to prevent the coming of undesired and unwanted children.
I believe that with the efficient social agencies we have that in twenty years we could wipe out disease at least 75%.
This could be done by having a hook-up of the birth control clinics and the social agencies and until that is done I believe that we will continue just as we have been doing in the past twenty years.
After all let us not forget where the five billion and the twenty billion dollars come from; it comes from our pockets and it deprives a certain group of people from increasing the size of their family and that will remain so, and the birth rate will remain as it is and the one group will have to bear the burden of the other on its shoulders, and I believe with birth control this will adjust itself, and it has done in Stockholm where it was found that the birth rate among the poor had gone down and the birth rate among the artisans and the intelligent group had gone up and that is a fundamental way to attack the problem of a differential birth rate.
I believe that the northern countries are now working on a wider survey and it will be a wonderful illustration of birth control when practically applied.
There are three groups or methods for birth control; the first is continence, either wholly or partial; the second is sterilization, either with x-ray or radium and the third is chemical or mechanical means to prevent conception. I have no objections to any group using anyone of these, but what I do believe in is the principle of birth control and if your religion agrees to the principle and objects to the method I have no quarrel with that, just so long as they do not impose upon me the kind of a method that they approve of.
If a religion believes that continence is the only method justifiable to God they have a perfect right, as far as I am concerned to use continence as a method but I do maintain as a citizen that they have no right to bring children into the world for me to maintain and take care of. There is where I have a right to object and I also claim that while there is no law against any individual having as many children as the individual desires they have no right to keep us from having laws in which we have the same right not to have more children than we desire to have.
It has always been highly ethical to have a large family but there has always been some question about the ethics of having a small family and I don't see why. For me it seems much more moral for two people to have only the number of children they can support and do well by them it is not to have the conscious responsibility but have a number of children and let anybody take care of them, including charitable institutions and this is because you have not the right responsibility, and I think it is far more moral to have that responsibility than not to have it.
The question of sterilization is one that is also much discussed and it depends on the physician and the individual, and the question of a mechanical or chemical method is one that depends on the individual and that is why we must have the birth control clinics because the physicians are in charge to instruct and to care for the individual mothers and decide on the proper method suitable for her individual case and there are just as individual methods of prevention as there are glasses or shoes it must be individually applied and each individual must be instructed, so I have no quarrel with either one of these methods.
Again we say that there are certain conditions where people should practice birth control and I claim that the first condition is where there are transmissible diseases. No human being has the right to bring a child into the world when the mother or father has a transmissible disease.
We know more today about transmissible disease and this is a problem not for the individual but is one that concerns the race as a whole and we believe that this is the first moral duty of every man or woman.
The next condition is that of diseases of women, heart and kidney disease and in these cases a woman should be advised and the best method of birth control used, and the medical profession should see that this is always done.
The third condition is where parents, although healthy themselves, have subnormal children and there we claim that parents should have no others if those they already have are subnormal. The next condition is spacing out babies to two or three years so the mother will have a chance to recuperate and have a chance to enjoy her new baby and also to prepare herself both mentally and spiritually for the coming of the next.
The Children's Bureau of the Department of Labor has shown that the children have the greatest chance of life who are spaced out from three to four years. That spacing out of infants is going to do more for infant mortality and help to preserve the health of the mothers.
The next condition is that where mothers should not take upon themselves the obligation of motherhood until they have finished adolescence. We do not want our girls to become mothers before they have developed into women. Womanhood should proceed motherhood and I claim that a young girl 12 or 13 should not become mothers and thousands of them are and they have become mothers at an age when we had no right to allow it, before they have finished their adolescent development.
The adolescent period for the girl is from 14 to 23 and the boy 18 to 25, and that is a very trying period in the life of the boy and the girl, physically, mentally, and I might say nervously. They are not quite fully developed and it is much better for the girl and for the child and for all concerned for motherhood not to take place before that age.
Again, the next condition is that of poverty and I believe that no couple has a right to have more children than they can provide properly for. A man and woman knowing that the earning capacity of the man will never be beyond a certain amount, $25 or $30 a week I believe has no moral right to bring children into the world, bring eight or nine children when they are unable to support them.
We have that condition, we have it here in Philadelphia, we see it every day in New York where the welfare organization bring these people to our clinic, mothers who have for years been dependent upon outside aide and at the same time bringing children into the world, if not every year, every year and a half.
I claim that we should grant to newly married people at least a year, or two years if possible, for them to get acquainted. It takes these young people a year to learn to know each other and that is a very difficult period. So often the marriage certificate means the end of happiness and every year we know we are learning more and more about happiness, and we know that a couple should have that year to know each other and to get acquainted, to play together and study together and develop together, develop the cultural side of their natures and to build up the great sacrament of life.
We know so little about love that it seems a very little thing to ask that the young people should prepare for motherhood and fatherhood and that they should know something about these things which we call life. This would prepare them for parenthood as they could learn something about phscology, physiology and something of their problems, and I maintain and believe that if young people were given time to build up their marriage relations, to know something about the fullest expression physically, mentally and spiritually we would have more permanent marriages and children brought into the world from desire and not anything else, and I believe that these young people are going to have not one or two children, but they are going to have more children and have them properly spaced.
We hear that some of the young people are considering it rather fashionable to have four or five children and are planning for it. It is not unusual to find a young mother with three children who is planning on the fourth, we have those also who come to the clinic and because they have a chance to space the children they are willing to have more, they have a chance to prepare for them and they are planning on having more.
Those who have gone through motherhood know it is a great experience but it is also a very hazardous one and I think we should try to make it as beautiful as possible and that can be done by making it voluntary. There is a difference and a very great difference, and you can never tell me that motherhood is beautiful for the woman who has nine or ten children, one every year. That woman is anxious and troubled and she cannot have great joy in motherhood and motherhood becomes a horror to millions of women.
We have had 12 thousand women who have come to the Clinic in New York and hundreds of thousands have written to me in the last fifteen years and I think it is safe to say that the great majority, about 98% say the reason they want information to control conception is because of the love they have for children who are already born. They ask for a chance to know their children, to love their children and to bring them up decently. They ask for a chance to regain their health, they ask for an opportunity to know their husbands, if you please, because they feel in many cases that they have lost his interest.
They start out by being happy and joyous and something happens ill-health, trouble and this young couple is torn apart and the woman is the first one to realize this, and she asks for something that helps her capture him back again, and this condition of ill-health is so often caused by too frequent pregnancy and the woman suffers ill-health and the husband becomes interested in another woman, and these women say "My husband has become interested in another woman because I refuse him. I am afraid of his touch, his carress I push him away, and now he is gone."
Thousands of women have written to me like that. Then we have women come to us who have not had children and they ask what can they do so they can have children, and we are glad to help these women who desire children just as much as we are to help those who do not desire to have more than they are able to have.
The problem must be solved, as we see it, by the establishment of clinics. There are today in the United States about 26 clinics. Some of them are in hospitals and some of them are organized and maintained by private groups. In England there are 22 clinics and in Germany there are three, and it is quite possible that the government in Germany is going to take over those clinics that have been recently organized. In England the women and the birth control groups are fighting for information to prevent conception to be given at the maternity and infant health centers of which there are some fifteen hundred maintained by the government.
In almost all countries they are "hooking up" and combining these two ideas, the need of birth control as a means of solving social problems.
Now after all birth control could be the basis of woman's health, it must be the basis for health for children and for a happy marriage. When we realize the great waste of women's health, when we realize the great waste of women's lives and energy in undesired pregnancies, women who have had fifteen and eighteen pregnancies and only three or four living children, and thee are ten thousand such and it is safe to say that fifty per cent of those pregnancies have been wasted, and with such a condition there is no business man in the world who [would] continue if he had a fifty per cent loss.
Many of the women who write to us tell us they have not paid for [the] coffins of their dead children, and they are writing to us pleading and asking us for something to save motherhood. Have we not paid for these laws that we have? Have we not paid as a race for the colossal ignorance, for the infant mortality, for feeble-mindedness and abortions? It seems to me we have paid for it.
It is a great social problem today and I think it is time to awaken, time to set ourselves to the task of relieving the condition, it is time to do away with it. We want children to be conceived in love and born of parents who want them, parents who have sound minds and sound bodies so they can give these things to their children as a heritage, and it is these mothers, their cries, my friends, that must spur us on in our fight, in our continued fight for the liberation of motherhood and of womenhood.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project