Margaret Sanger, "Is Birth Control Legal?," 11 Jan 1937.
Typed Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress , Library of Congress Microfilm 130:534 .
Sanger's speech was opened with the following announcement: "Maragret Sanger, leader of the national and international birth control movement will speak on the subject, "Is Birth Control Legal?" Mrs. Sanger has devoted more than 20 years to the cause of birth control. Her devotion and vision have been crowned with success, and today birth control is recognized by physicians, scientists, and public-spirit citizens as a necessary part of preventative medicine and public health. Mrs. Sanger:-"
The greatest legal victory on the birth control movement was won last month when the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously upheld a decision of the lower courts liberating the medical profession, hospitals, and other health agencies from the legal restrictions of the Comstock laws.
Until 1873, there were no obscenity laws in the United States. It is inspiring to think back on the principles that governed the founding fathers and to realize that true Americanism, as shown in the Constitution and the amendments to the Constitution, stood for freedom of speech and freedom of the mails.
In 1873, Congress passed the so-called obscenity laws, prohibiting the use of the mails and common carriers for various items which were considered lewd and obscene. Whatever our feeling about the aim of this legislation, we all agree that the inclusion of the phrase, “articles and literature for the prevention of conception,” was unfortunate. We must remember that this phrase meant something far different sixty years ago than it means today.
The birth control movement has centered largely around rectifying this mistake. Birth control, as we understand it today, means family planning; it means the spacing of children so that each child may be born to a mother physically and mentally able to give it the care it needs; it means that every child should be planned for and wanted.
The National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, of which I am the president has been seeking for seven years to have this law amended. We have believed that the medical profession should be free to give birth control advice when needed and that it should be exempted from the restrictions of the Comstock law. Public opinion in support of our belief has increased steadilly. Our organization numbers more than 100,000 individual endorsers and approximately 1,000 organizations have gone on record approving and supporting our aims.
Early in December the American Institute of Public Opinion published the results of a poll on the question: “Should the distribution of information on birth control be made legal?” A cross section of the country gave an emphatic answer in the affirmative. A second poll was taken on the question: “What is the ideal size of a family?” The largest vote was given to the two and three-child family. America has accepted the idea of family planning. It knows that parenthood can be a matter of conscious decision and that children should come only to homes able and eager to take care of them.
The decision of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals was handed down in a test case on the importation of birth control material, sent to a doctor for scientific purposes. It has given to America what we have been seeking through an amendment to the Comstock laws.
Birth control--that is, advice given by physicians--is legal today. This Court decision brings to an end the sixty-three year reign of muddle and tyranny. After 60 years of confusion, during which information that is often needed to save health and lives of women was classed with obscenity, the rights of the American physician in the legitimate use of scientific birth control are clarified.
“We are satisfied,” said the judges, “that this statute embraced only such articles Congress would have denounced as immoral if it had understood all the conditions under which they were to be used. Its design, in our opinion, was not to prevent the importation, sale, or carriage by mail of things which might intelligently be employed by conscientious and competent physicians for the purpose of saving life or promoting the well-being of their patients.”
This means that the program for birth control can be widened--that a new epoch in the movement is beginning. Birth Control can now be made available through hospitals, doctors and health services. Women in small rural communities and on isolated farms, who are pleading for cheap and effective means of controlling the size of their families, can now be given help.
The Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York has given birth control advice to 56 thousand patients during the fourteen years of its existence. It is the oldest birth control clinic in America and the largest in the world, and it stands ready to help physicians and health agencies throughout the country to establish birth control service. Our vast experience at this clinic has given us exact knowledge of what birth control can do, in bettering the condition of women. We know that the methods advised are effective, that they can be used by women of all classes. We know that women are eager and willing to use reliable birth control advice, so that they can have properly spaced, well planned families.
In addition to maintaining a staff of physicians to care for those who ask for advice, we receive each year thousands of letters from women all over the country. These women, when it is possible, are referred to clinics and doctors. But all too often no help is near, and the very women who most need instruction cannot get it.
I will read you one of the letters: “What is birth control? I have four children now and almost killed myself getting rid of the fifth. My husband never has steady work and we have a hard time to raise and feed the children. For God’s sake tell me what to do! I’m sick and frantic with worry. This is my last and only hope. I’ll pray night and day until I hear from you. Please don’t fail me.”
It is because of women such as this one that I rejoice to tell you that birth control is legal. It is to help her and many thousands like her, that we now embark on a wider birth control program.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project