Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control and Woman's Health," Dec 1917.
Published article. Source: Birth Control Review, Dec. 1917, pp. 7-8 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections, S70:791 .
One of the first questions asked by women desirous of contraceptive information, is: "Will the knowledge of birth control, when put into practice, injure the health of either the man or the woman?"
The conclusion arrived at by some of the most prominent authorities on the subject is to the effect that there are safe and reliable means of controlling birth which will not injure the health of either the man or the woman.
Among these eminent authorities may be included such men as Dr. Havelock Ellis, Dr. Hector Treub, Professor Forel, Dr. Iwan Bloch, Dr. Anton Nystrom, Dr. A. Jacoby, formerly President of the American Medical Association, and Dr. William J. Robinson, who, in his book on the Limitation of Offspring challenges any physician or gynecologist to produce "a single case," in which disease or injury resulted from modern methods of birth control.
Not only are we fortunate in possessing the opinions of the best known medical authorities, but we are also fortunate in possessing historical facts collected in Holland and New Zealand, where for years the knowledge of birth control has been disseminated among the working class women.
In these two countries we find the women largely free from so-called "female complaints" common to the women of the United States. There are two practical reasons for this. The first one is the fact that women go to the birth control clinic for instruction and information, thus giving the nurse the opportunity to detect any ailment or incipient disease, which, if present, is promptly treated by a specialist. The second reason is, that owing to scientific knowledge of birth control, women are saved from the deteriorating and ghastly effects of abortion, which so many women of the United States frequently undergo.
Military statistics of Holland prove that the average stature of the male citizens has increased by four inches during the thirty years since the first birth control clinic was opened in Amsterdam.
We also learn from statistics in Holland for 1912 that the death rate in Amsterdam, which, in 1881, was 25.1, had fallen in 1912 to 11.2, the lowest death rate reported of all lists submitted. The infant mortality, which in 1881 was 203, had fallen in 1912 to 64. These statistics, together with numerous other reports, which for want of space cannot be related, prove conclusively that the scientific application of birth control among the working class has resulted in a racial improvement.
In this country our stupid and puritanical laws have been the cause of more than fifty thousand annual deaths resulting from abortions. These laws have caused hundreds of thousands of women to drag out a futile existence due to nervous exhaustion from too frequent child-bearing. These laws are responsible for the birth of children tainted by syphilis, who become not only a charge upon the public, but also a detriment to the human race.
I am going to quote from one of the many typical letters I am constantly receiving from all parts of the country, in order that my readers may get some idea of conditions as they exist among us.
I was left without a father when a girl of fourteen years old. I was the oldest child of five. My mother had no means of support except her two hands, so we worked at anything we could, my job being nurse girl at home while mother worked most of the time, as she could earn more money than I could, for she could do harder work.
I wasn't very strong and finally after two years my mother got so tired and worn out trying to make a living for so many, she married again, and as she married a poor man, we children were not much better off. At the age of seventeen I married a man, a brakeman on the ----Railroad, who was eleven years older than I. He drank some and was a very frail looking man, but I was very ignorant of the world and did not think of anything but making a home for myself and husband. After eleven months I had a little girl born to me. I did not want more children, but my mother-in-law told me it was a terrible sin to do anything to keep from having children and that the Lord only sent just thing, and if I heard anything I was told it was injurious, so I did not try.
In eleven months again, Oct. 25, I had another little puny girl. In twenty-three months, Sept. 25, I had a seven-lb. boy. In ten months, July 15, I had a seven-months baby that lived five hours. In eleven months, June 20, I had another little girl. In seventeen months, Nov. 30, another boy. In nine months a four months' miscarriage. In twelve month another girl, and in three and a half years another girl.
All of these children were born into poverty; the father's health was always poor, and when the third girl was born he was discharged from the road because of his disability, yet he was still able to put children into the world. When the oldest child was twelve years old the father died of concussion of the brain while the youngest child was born two months after his death.
Now, Mrs. Sanger, I did not want these children, because even in my ignorance I had sense enough to know that I had no right to bring those children into such a world where they could not have decent care, for I was not able to do it myself nor hire it done. I prayed and I prayed that they would die when they were born. Praying did no good and today I have read and studied enough to know that I am the mother of seven living children and that I committed a crime by bringing them into the world, their father was syphilitic (I did not know about such things when I was a girl). One son is to be sent to Mexico, while one of my girls is a victim of the white slave traffic.
I raised my family in a little college town in ---- and am well known there, for I made my living washing and working for the college people while I raised my little brood. I often wondered why those educated well-to-do people never had so many children. I have one married daughter who is tubercular, and she also has two little girls, only a year apart. I feel so bad about it, and write to ask you to send me information for her. Don't stop your good work; don't think it's not appreciated; for there are hundreds of women like myself who are not afraid to risk their lives to help you to get this information to poor women who need it.
This is but one illustration of what women endure through the ravages of syphilis. The waste from tuberculosis is no less terrible.
Here is another letter which speaks for itself:
Kindly pardon me for writing this to you, not knowing what trouble this may cause you. But I've heard of you through a friend and realize you are a friend of humanity. If people would see with your light, the world would be healthy. I married the first time when I was eighteen years old, a drinking man. I became mother to five children. In 1908 my husband died of consumption. I lost two of my oldest children from the same disease, one at 16 and the other at 23. The youngest of them all, a sweet girl of nineteen, now lies at ------sanatorium expecting to leave us at any time. The other sister and brother look very poorly.
I have always worked very hard, because I had to. In 1913 I married again, a good man this time, but a laboring man, and our constant fear and trouble is what may happen if we bring children into the world. I'm forty-six years old this month and not very well any more, either. So a Godsend will be some one who can tell me how to care for myself, so I can be free from suffering and also not bring mortals to earth to suffer and die.
Does the State ever ask itself if it economic to support and educate human beings up to the ages specified above, only to lose them in the end, knowing in advance that they should never have been born?
The cases given are only two of thousands of good women whose lives have been spent uselessly bearing burdens that no civilized society should put upon them. These things are past and we cannot undo the harm that has been done to the victims, but we can prevent our younger generation from committing the same crimes. If you will compare the letter which follows with the early history of the first one quoted above, you will see a young life starting out which, if left in ignorance, will have the same disastrous experience:
Mine is a pitiful case. Having been married over a year and having lost our baby (which was premature) I am now going to have another. I am in wretched health. I have been in bed for months since I married. The doctors all say that motherhood is not for me, but only shake their heads when I ask them for advice as how to keep from having children so fast, at least until my health improves. I live in dread that this one will be born dead, too, for my health is as bad as before. The doctors are continually treating me, but I never seem to improve.
My husband and I are also deeply in debt--as you know, doctors and nurses can eat up money--and as matters stand we will never be free from debt again unless something is done. I want you to know that I am not selfish, for I love children. But at twenty-one years I have developed into a worn out, faded sickly woman, and I know that my husband is in time bound to grow weary of the heavy yoke that is put on his shoulders. We are doing all that we can to bring this little baby into the world as healthy as my frail body will permit, but after that (should I live) I would like to refrain from having children until I get stronger.
Could there be a more worthy case of the right of an individual to demand, yes, demand of science, of the medical profession and of the State, the benefit of the knowledge society has accumulated on this subject?
These three cases represent, in a small degree, living conditions as they are. What a waste of human life our ignorance and stupidity is costing us! What an amount of useless suffering will be avoided when women have birth control knowledge!
We are dealing with peculiar facts today, so far as the health of the race is concerned. In the early history of the race, so-called "natural law" reigned undisturbed. Under its pitiless and unsympathetic iron rule, only the strongest, most courageous could live and become progenitors of the race. The weak died early, or were killed. Today, however, civilization has brought sympathy, pity, tenderness and other lofty and worthy sentiments, which interfere with the law of natural selection. We are now in a state where our charities, our compensation acts, our pensions, hospitals and even our drainage and sanitary equipment all tend to keep alive the sickly and weak, who are allowed to propagate and in turn produce a race of degenerates.
What we need to do, is to combine Reason with this higher sense of sympathy, and to encourage the birth of those only whose inheritance is health, and so only so many as can be brought up in cleanliness and happiness.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project