Margaret Sanger, "Does the Public Want Birth Control," Apr 1936.
Published Article. Source: True Confessions (April 1936), pp. 24, 76-79 , Library of Congress Microfilm 128:0689-073 .
This may have been a version of the speech Sanger gave at the Birth Control Comes of Age Anniversary Dinner, held in Washington, D.C. on February 12, 1935.
“Can it be possible that there is any way to keep from having children? It would seem too good to be true. I have six children, my youngest two months old and I am just scared to death for fear I shall have another child, for I never can live to go through with it again.
“I came near dying this time. For three months before my last baby was born I could not get any shoes on my feet and I could hardly get my eyes open to see.
“The doctor wanted to take the baby away when I was eight months, but I said ‘no.’ I did not care if I lived or died and I did not have the least idea of living, but the Lord spared me, probably so I could go through with it again. But I live on the banks of Lake Erie and just as sure as I get in the family way again, I will end my troubles and be at rest.”
* * * *
If you were to receive a letter like this, wouldn’t you want to help? Every day such letters come to me in Washington. Here is another one:
“I am writing you an earnest letter. I have a child every year and I am so weak and run down and nervous I can hardly care for my five children, who are sickly all the time, and for the new baby.
“At night, when I go to bed, I always pray that I’ll never wake up again for I hate the dawn of a new day. Life is miserable for me and when you live through days of torture like that you may as well be dead. My oldest is seven and I have had one miscarriage.
“I get that way every year and when I know I am that way I take everything so I don’t have to bring another unwanted, sickly babe that connot be taken care of properly nor fed properly, into the home. But it seems nothing helps, and it only hurts my health. So I make a last and final plea to see if you can give me any information telling me how to keep from getting any more children. I would gladly do without a loaf of bread so I could get this help.”
Here is yet another:
“I have asked my doctor oh! so many times to tell me something to do to prevent conception, but he won’t tell. It is easy enough for him to say, “Now you take your life in your hands if you have any more children.’ It’s easy for him to say that, but he won’t tell me how not to have any more, and I am determined to find out.
“I am twenty-three, and I already have three children. I was married when I was nineteen, a woman in years but a child otherwise. I was raised by one of these mothers who believe girls should be kept in and know nothing until they are married. I love my mother but she believes, ‘let nature take its course; what God sends take and keep quiet.’ Is it any wonder I am asking, yes, even praying, for help? I am so weak I can hardly stand up and I have my home to take care of and my babies besides, as we cannot afford help. It’s just a case of get up and do it. My husband is only a boy of twenty-five, and works day and night. He is losing his health with worry. He is a helper on the railroad at forty-seven cents an hour. That was enough when we were first married but babies and hospital and doctor bills take too much and we cannot go on like this, having a baby every year.”
Literally, thousands of letters like these have come to me since I opened America’s first Birth Control Clinic in 1916. Remember they are real letters from real women, and behind each one is a story of suffering and unhappiness that might have been--should be--avoided.
Take the three letters quoted! The woman who wrote the first, who could hardly get her eyes open to see for three months before her sixth child was born, is obviously physically unfit for further child-bearing. If she is to be saved to bring up the children she now has, she must have safe and reliable birth control advice.
The second woman tells of her attempts to bring on a miscarriage, and of her sickly brood of six. In many cases such as this, the woman, in desperation, goes to an abortionist, and commits that crime which all women in their souls rebel against. How much better it is to tell mothers how to prevent, in order that they will not have to destroy.
The posters used, announcing the opening of the first birth control clinic, made this clear. It said: “Mothers! Can you afford to have a large family? Do you want any more children? If not, why do you have them? Do not kill, do not take life, but prevent!” This was repeated in Yiddish and in Italian, for this first clinic was opened in one of New York’s crowded districts, where many of the women cannot understand English.
Now let us analyze the deplorable condition depicted in the third letter. . . a young couple with three children. Figure for yourself what will happen to this worried young couple in five, ten or fifteen year, unless help, in the shape of birth control advice, is given to this young woman.
And yet, tragic as her case is, it would be considered “easy street” to thousands, nay millions of women. At least her husband is at work. True his wages are small, and they will not grow (the chances are) as his family grows. But every family on relief, every family where the man is unemployed is faced with a worse problem.
And by the latest official count there are now four million eighty-five thousand families in America dependent for their very existence on public relief. Literally millions of mothers are living in fear of adding to their already heavy burdens the tragedy of another, and unwanted child.
These women ask little in life, their needs are few. They want above all to help themselves.
What chance of happiness is there for them if their lives are full of fear and dread? What basis is there for a happy home if, with their husbands out of work, or barely earning enough for two, babies keep coming, year after year, making just so many more hungry mouths to feed? These women love their babies-- love them too much to want to see them suffer from want, when they know there is so little with which to provide for the future in this difficult world. They want to take care of a few children decently and not live in squalor with a new baby each year, draining the mother’s health and the father’s pocket-book, or more often, dependent on public relief. I speak as a mother myself, and also as a trained nurse and social worker.
It was many years ago that I first started to work among the mothers on the East side of New York City, in the crowded slum districts. It was there that the tragic need for scientific family limitation was brought brutally before me.
The conditions that exist there among the families of the very poor are known to all who have worked in the slums of large cities. To the fortunate citizens of small towns and villages, they are indescribable. Large families crowded together in one or two tiny rooms, dark and airless. Boarders often taken in when there is really hardly room enough for the family, but the extra money is desperately needed. Parents, children, boarders, all huddled together in the same room, and often in the same bed. Women pregnant, year in, year out.
Here, in that atmosphere, the facts of life are common knowledge. Birth and abortion and death are frequent topics of conversation. Life for these women is an unending succession of child-bearing. They try anything to keep from having so many babies; all sorts of drugs, teas and hot baths to bring themselves “around” when they are in the “family-way.” When these fail, they try a crude operation, sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes performed by a professional abortionist. If they survive, then they are considered lucky; but too often they die.
One terrifically hot mid-summer day I was called to take care of Mrs. Doe (I shall call her by that name although it is not her real one) a young East-side mother of twenty-eight. She was married to a nice young fellow of thirty-two and they had three little children. They loved each other and the babies dearly and were struggling along on the meager wages that Mr. Doe was earning.
But it was the same old story. When I arrived, Mrs. Doe was prostrate on the floor. She, knowing of the struggle to eke out a bare living for the little ones they already had, was unable to face the prospect of another baby. She had used some instrument upon herself, lent to her by a friend.
For weeks we nursed that little woman as she hovered between life and death. Finally we pulled her through. But, though the neighbors were kind and brought her little gifts and good things to eat and she was getting better each day, still nothing seemed to cheer her. She was depressed and disconsolate.
Finally one day, after the doctor had pronounced her well and was preparing to leave, he told her to be careful and not let herself become pregnant again.
“I suppose another baby will be my end. Doctor, tell me what can I do to keep from it?” she said.
“Oh, ho,” laughed the doctor in good humor, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too!” Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.” With that he went out the door and left us.
I shall never forget the look on that woman’s face. Tremendous emotions were surging within her.
Conquering her feelings, she turned to me beseechingly, “Tell me the secret,” she begged. “Tell me--and I’ll never breathe it to soul!”
But what could I tell her? I really did not know myself! Tears filled my eyes and she knew that I was sympathetic. But I could do nothing to help her.
Some weeks later, Mr. Doe called me on the ‘phone. Instantly I knew what had happened. On my way I prayed for an accident to overtake me. I could not bear to face Mrs. Doe’s reproachful eyes, to see her suffering so needlessly.
She died ten minutes after I arrived. She never regained consciousness and did not know I was there. Her young husband paced the floor in despair, wringing his hands and weeping bitterly. Her three little children, left motherless, were sobbing in a corner.
It was then that my whole world--my whole outlook on life changed.
I walked home in a daze, weary and heart-sick. I walked and walked and all the while the resolve within me kept growing stronger and stronger: I will do something to help these women!
The dawn was rising as I reached my room and I stood at my window and looked out over the sleeping city. I seemed to be seeing right into those millions of lives and into the very heart of those homes, stretching across the great city. I could feel myself the awful fear pressing on these families and causing them such untold misery and degradation. Little children forced into factories to help feed the newer arrivals; women, always pregnant, afraid, cowed, overworked; men, unable to take care of their ever-increasing families, becoming sullen, drunken, sinking lower and lower. Social welfare was only a palliative--the root of the evil needed to be reached.
I threw my nursing bag across the room, pulled off my nurses uniform, and made up my mind never again to nurse only women’s bodies while the real cause of their trouble was left untouched. Women have a right to know about their own bodies; they should know about birth control. I would tell the world what was happening. I would be heard!
It may be well to stop here, and make clear just what birth control is . . . and what it is not.
A couple--shy, young, evidently recently married--stand hesitating at the door of the clinic in New York. It is a nice, old-fashioned, and, I think, inviting door leading into what was once a large family house. Nothing forbidding, nothing institutional. The door opens and they are invited in by a pleasant young woman. They find themselves in a cheerful, home-like room, talking things over with a woman doctor.
Mrs. Bride (for indeed she is one, in New York on her wedding trip) is speaking. “John and I have such grand plans. We have a little apartment all ready for us back home, and we want to have children as soon as we are able to take care of them. But what we want to know. . . people tell you all sorts of things. . . and talk and talk one doesn’t know right from wrong . . .” She stammered and grew confused.
The kindly doctor was used to young brides. She explained that birth control, rightly used, was safe and reliable. She said that, in her opinion, it was better for a young couple to have a year or so to get used to each other before the wife became pregnant. “First learn to know each other as man and woman, as comrades, before you become parents,” she said.
“And can we surely have children when we want them?” asked earnest John.
“Well, no one can answer that,” the doctor replied. “But I can tell you that birth control will do you no harm. Wise parents use birth control except when they want to have a baby. After the baby’s birth, they again use birth control, so that the next baby won’t come too soon.”
“You mean that people can plan just how many children to have and when to have them?”
“Exactly. Children should not come too close together. They should not come when the mother is not entirely well and strong. They should not come when the father cannot support them.”
The doctor’s careful explanation may be summed up as follows: There are many things to be though of in planning the size of a family, but three are most important. First the mother’s health: No woman should attempt to bring a baby into the world if she has tuberculosis, heart or kidney disease. These are illnesses which can usually be cured, if taken in time, and if the mother’s strength is not drained by pregnancy. Second, the father’s earnings: One would think that everyone would agree that a family should have no more children than they can support. But many, many couples are trying to live on pitifully small incomes, and millions of families among the unemployed are unable to get birth control information. The third reason is child spacing. This means that the children should not come too close together, that a woman should have plenty of time to get her strength back after pregnancy before another child is on the way.
Dr. Frederick C. Holden, a very wise and good doctor, has put this well in one sentence. “A wise father and mother will have as many children as can be safely carried, safely born and adequately reared.”
This sums up, in its simplest terms, what birth control IS. What it is not, the nurses and doctors at birth control clinics must explain daily with patience and sympathy.
Shortly after young John and Mrs. John had left the clinic, armed with information which will give them a good chance for happiness, a frightened, bedraggled woman rang the door bell. A child clung to her skirt, she carried a sickly baby in her arms. Before the nurse had time even to ask her name, she cried out: “Thees one, and thees one,” pointing to the baby, “and mucha plenty more bambino at home. Now comes again bambino, I no can do . . . you feex . . .” and she burst into a flood of Italian, sobbing and rocking to and fro.
A woman doctor who spoke Italian soothed and quieted her and got her story. Husband out of work; three children at home--one a cripple. The baby always ailing, six months old, and now she was again pregnant. She wanted an abortion. But birth control is not abortion, and there was no help for her. She had come too late. Earnestly the doctor urged her to be brave, to have this baby, and then come again after the baby’s birth, and find out about birth control.
I coined this term birth control in 1914. I started on my life work to bring this knowledge to every married woman who needs it and wants it. For twenty-one years I have fought for the right of women to have only wanted children, for the right of women to have birth control information. This twenty-first Anniversary dinner showed how near--and how far--we are from the goal.
Birth control is an accepted term. Its meaning is clear. It is endorsed by doctors and by ministers, by social workers, nurses, thoughtful and intelligent men and women the world over. The list of national groups, who have endorsed this work, runs to over a thousand. The most recent endorsements of birth control and of our efforts to change the Federal law are from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the American Association of University Women. The General Federation represents 2,000,000 women and the University group 450,000.
The East side clinic, about which I have told you, was closed as a “public nuisance” and both my sister and I served prison sentences as a result. But as a result, too, at my trial, the decision was issued that in New York state birth control instruction may be given to a married person by a physician for the “cure or prevention of disease.”
On the strength of this decision, I was able to open a legal clinic in 1923. It has been caring for the women of New York ever since, for the young brides and the mothers broken down by many childbirths, for women of all nationalities and classes and races. It has made possible over ten thousand women, healthier and happier lives. This clinic has been a model and an inspiration for other clinics elsewhere. Today there are approximately 200 clinics in the United States, taking care of poor women who needed birth control advice.
It would seem that the goal is near. But, though I am thankful that so much has been done, though my heart goes out in gratitude to the loyal friends who have helped me, the goal is, as I have said, still far off.
What needs still to be done must be done by the nation as a whole, by all women and by their husbands, by those who feel as I did on that far-off dawn when I dedicated myself to this task.
The women of America, because of their love for children, want safe and reliable birth control information. They have a right to this knowledge. They have a right to bring into the world children joyfully conceived and happily awaited, children whom they can rear with love and some measure of economic security.
Today, despite the support of thoughtful and influential people, despite scientific findings and the efforts of doctors, ministers and social workers, thousands upon thousands of women ask for birth control advice in vain.
Laws passed over sixty years ago class this knowledge with obscenity and make it illegal to send birth control information or supplies through the mail. Bills now before Congress will, if passed, make if possible for doctors, hospitals and clinics to give birth control advice when needed. Then thousands of hospitals and the Public Health Service of the United States government could give this information to mothers too poor to go to a private physician.
Here is true democracy. Here is a chance to give to every mother in America the right to decide when she should undertake that most noble career, motherhood.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project