Margaret Sanger, "Civilizing Power of Planned Parenthood," [12 May 1955] .

Typed Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection , Margaret Sanger Microfilm S72:0927 .

Sanger prepared this speech for the International Planned Parenthood Federation's First Western Hemisphere Conference on Population Problems and Family Planning, held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 12-15, 1955. She did not attend the conference. For a draft version, see Margaret Sanger Microfilm S72:916.


Margaret Sanger

Many years ago I wrote and published a book entitled “The Pivot of Civilization.” The point of this book was that the future of civilization is, in all its phases, dependent upon Planned Parenthood––or Birth Control, as we expressed the idea of contraception in those pioneering days. I was brought to a new realization of how swiftly we have moved in these past thirty years. Our civilization has wrought miracles on one level, and plunged humanity into disaster and chaos on another. Our civilization gives evidence of an inner conflict. It suffers from a “split personality”.

First let us look at the miracles it has wrought. Its scientists and engineers have harnessed and controlled the vast forces of external nature. Just glance at the vast hydro-electric projects, furnishing millions upon millions of horsepower, by converting wild water resources into electric power. Think of man’s conquest of the implacable law of gravitation, which produced the miracle of aviation, by which we all profit. Consider man’s achievement in electronics, and the miracles of television and radio communications. And finally, the scientists who have explored the atom have released upon our world the mysterious resources of atomic energy–-with its cast potentials for good–-and for evil!

But while Mankind--and in the last few decades, mind you--has conquered and controlled and tamed the vast heretofore forces of the outer universe, we can find only slight success in the control and conquest of the inner, subjective drives and passions within human nature itself. Blind energies riot uncontrolled through the vast human species, populating this little globe! We find ourselves confronted not only by WAR--hot and cold!–-but all the other appalling consequences of uncontrolled population increase: Whole communities of thousands and of millions are uprooted from their homes, driven into exile, victims of mass extermination, of epidemics, of famine, starvation, despised and rejected; slave labor camps replacing the concentration camps; or millions sent to the steppes of eastern Siberia with the command of the Soviet despots to populate those barren areas!

Confronted by these mass tragedies, with their chaos and confusion it would be hypocritical to speak of ↑a↓ Civilization in this age. But I could not help thinking how much more humane it might be if our great scientists had turned away from the invention of A-bombs and H-bombs, with their atrocious power of destruction, to the more necessary and benign task of producing a reliable, efficient, cheaply produced and easily distributed contraceptive. The victimized mothers of the world would with one great voice thank them as the benefactors of humanity today and all the future. How much greater would be this service to Civilization, instead of the present unholy alliance between Science and the powers of destruction!

I believe that all of you who have studied the new statistics of comparative demography, the discoveries of the new social anthropology, the findings of the impartial geneticists, the experts in population and over-population, must agree with me that our civilization, however great its outer achievements, has failed to probe to the root causes of human miseries. Too often it has expended its energies in seeking to bridge order out of chaos, instead of, with farseeing vision preventing the great human catastrophies.

To my book “The Pivot of Civilization”, my good friend, the late H. G. Wells contributed an introduction in which he contrasted the new progressive, experimental ideal of civilization with that of the old static, traditional way of life dominated by Mother Church and Father State. Mr. Wells surveyed, as a historian, several civilizations of the past and present. Today we are living, he believed, not in a simple or complete civilization, but in a conflict of at least two civilizations. One of these he called the Traditional or Authoritative civilization which rests blindly upon the customs of past generations. It insists upon respect and obedience to the powers that be. It discourages criticism and inquiry. It is not only ancient, but conservative and reactionary.

Contrasted with the older civilization we find that Mr. Wells calls the ↑new↓ civilization ↑one↓ of inquiry, of experiment, knowledge and science. Creative and progressive civilization says “Let knowledge grow from more to more and more of reverence in us dwell.” “Let man know and trust him.” These two forces today are at war upon a thousand issues. Ancient civilizations all encouraged unrestricted breeding to meet the catastrophic waste of life through wars, pestilence, floods and periodic epidemics. The new civilization has conquered to a large extent the scourges, floods and preventible diseases, but confronts us with the explosive dangers of an overpopulated world. We find the old civilization clamoring for more and more babies-–the cry “Our babies are dying,give us more babies.” They will eventually become consumers say the Communists. They put all the answers to over-populated areas--“Let them emigrate. Let them expand their industry!” Under our very eyes, as reported in the newspapers, we can watch the Soviets sending to the steppes of Siberia thousands upon thousands of young men and women to breed and populate a now barren territory. According to a special dispatch to the New York Times for Moscow:

“Last year 150,000 young men and women were sent out as pioneers to the new lands. This year, according to the Komsomol, Communist youth organization, 620,000 others volunteered to join the first settlers. The Komsomol has chosen 165,000 of whom 55,000 have already gone east. Every few days several carloads of migrants leave from the big city stations.”

This example illustrates the authoritarian despotism of the so-called Soviet civilization (however much the Soviets may boast of their progressiveness). Population policies are decided by Father State, or in Orwell’s satire-–“Big Brother knows best!”

The new civilizing power of Planned Parenthood, in contrast, liberates the potential mother and wife from the despotic decrees of Father State–-or Mother Church. It restores self-direction, self-decision, self-determination of the parents to advance the family. Planned Parenthood recognizes the desire on the part of husband and wife to build up a healthy, happy family; to recognize and accept responsibility of the number of children in the family. It envisages education for parenthood before arrival of offspring, the spacing of births in consideration of the mother’s health, the father’s earning capacity and the standards of living and culture to be maintained.

In contrast to the older, vanishing civilization, which was limited and nationalistic in scope, the new civilization assumes world-wide responsibilities. This new internationalism is embodied in the ideals of the United Nations organization. But as far as I have been able to discover, the United Nations and its subsidiary bodies have shied away from the basic problems of over-population, planned parenthood and contraception. Its reports seem to be toned down to keep from offending delegates from countries dominated by “Mother” Church. Yet how can the dangers to world peace that always threaten to explode in over-populated areas be averted without bringing the frank and open discussion of Planned Parenthood to the council table?

We hear much discussion of aid to “backward” and underdeveloped areas. But we fail to see that these under-developed areas are always over-populated zones. How long can the American people be expected to pay confiscatory taxes to support these over-populated lands forever and ever? Yet we read in the well-informed Wall Street Journal that foreign aid to the extent of the more than eighteen billion dollars is to be sent to Asia during the next eight years--eighteen billion to be buried in the ever-shifting quicksands of a rootless over-populated area-–a territory and a society, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, possessing neither the economic nor the political sagacity to handle any such sum sensibly. Here is another instance of seeking a solution, not by radical diagnosis, but by treating effects. As well might we try to sweep back a tidal wave with a whisk-broom!

We are also reminded by another observer of the Asiatic scene that countries suffering from excessive over-population do not value human life very highly.

Before World War I Japan was the classic example of over-population, which problem the Empire met by expansion into adjacent territories.

I dwell on these instances to illustrate how intricately and integrally bound up with international affairs is the problem of over-population in every country. Must the haves be called upon to support the not-haves indefinitely? Rather, must we not insist upon consideration of the world population problem from the point of view of the new, as yet untried civilization, seeking to enlighten the political leaders and the scientists to the close inter-relations and co-relations between inner procreative energies, too often uncontrolled and purely instinctual, and the outer objective confusion and social chaos which are their consequences.

If we define civilization as increased and increasing responsibility based upon vision and foresight, it becomes evident (painfully so) that parenthood as practiced today by a large percentage of our human race is in no sense civilized. In almost all countries today there is one class, which is generally known as “upper class”. Women of this class have the most up-to-date maternal care, modern science and modern nursing. The maternal and infant death rate is lowest in this class. It is from the class that women are able to space the births of children in consideration of their health, the fathers earning capacity, and the standards of living to be maintained. Here we have mothers who, being free from the constant burden of pregnancy, can and often do enlist their training and educated abilities to increase the family income. These are the mothers who enlarge the cultural and religious, political and civic organizations in the community. Were they without knowledge of planned parenthood, they one and all would fall under the German ideal--kitchen, church and cradle from puberty to the menopause. This is the fate of millions of women in every country on earth.

Biological slavery to unwanted pregnancies, and to unwanted babies. As we look back over the histories of various civilizations we find in nearly every one there were always ways and means of trying to control population. Babies of Roman and Grecian countries were left to the elements for the first 24 hours of their birth. If the youngster survived without food or protection, it was considered worth the cost and burden of its upkeep. In Germany, Austria, and many other European and Asiatic countries, there was the crime of smothering, drowning, abandoning and selling infants. In spite of laws, to deliberately kill infants, this slaughter was carried on through the Middle Ages until the art of abortion became a practice. Mothers were beaten, imprisoned, drowned as punishment, threatened with hellfire, but the crimes continued as unwanted babies came into existence. The “survival of the fit” was perhaps the basic principle which brought our present civilization to flower. It may have seemed to be a cruel and relentless policy, but the changes from the eugenic laws to feudal system had certain values in balancing the birth and death rates. Family responsibilities gave dignity and security within the design of individual clans.

Then came the area of philanthropy and charity, where these individuals whom nations would have discarded as unfit to survive, were taken into palatial buildings, fed and clothed at the expense of the fit. They toiled not, neither did they spin, but were free to breed, to increase, to multiply recklessly, not only progeny, but their idiocy, mental and physical transmittable diseases. Thus the old civilization defying nature’s balancing has created an overpopulated world, with “cold wars” threatening peaceful existence, for the fit and intelligent adults of our present civilization.

In the program of the Planned Parenthood Federation there are helpful clinics and physicians to advise parents in spacing th arrival of infants. There are also departments to assist and encourage parents who may desire additional children. But so far as I am informed, there is no sound eugenic clinic to warn men and women against becoming parents.

There are several reasons to avoid parenthood:

1. Sometimes for a temporary period only, such as the case where the woman may be affected with tuberculosis, heart or kidney disease, and other minor ailments when pregnancy is known to slow up the cure of these diseases.

2. Definitely there should be no progeny when either husband or wife is affected with a transmissible disease. Sterilization of the one so afflicted should be advised.

3. When parents give birth to children mentally handicapped or physical infirmities such as cleft palate, hair lip, blindness, all inherited, sterilization should be recommended.

These are several essential conditions to be considered before parenthood is advised.

Space and limitation have prevented me from taking up the problem of the unwanted child. American cities are being forced to consider the psychology of the unwanted child, as they discover its relations to the ever-growing prison population and mental disturbance. On this subject we must agree with Marie Perry Price, who in a recent letter to the New York Times declared:

“A child has a right not to be conceived and born into a home, a family or a community that does not want him and makes so little provision for his care.”

If would-be parents were to apply as a test to their fitness for parenthood to any adoption agency and reply to the questions that are asked by that agency to safeguard the child’s life and to insure its health, happiness and development, I believe that more than 50% of would-be parents today would be unacceptable by the adoption agency to care for children. As along as any civilization encourages unrestrained fertility, always there is furnished the most fertile breeding class for mental defectives, morons and imbeciles. We protect the weak and feeble-minded up to the period of reproduction and then set them free to reproduce and increase their kind. The prisons and institutions are on the increase with long waiting lists of children, as well as adults to be admitted. Here is where the healthy and fit must limit the increase of the own progeny in order to support the increase of the diseased unfit. To continue this process at the insistence of the old civilization is to dramatically submerge and eventually wipe out the talented geniuses of this generation and give over the inmates of the institutions the creation of a future civilization.

Despite all the changes, the achievements and the disasters of the last four decades, I still have renewed hope for an enlightened civilization, especially as it is embodied in the program for planned parenthood. I can still agree with the young poet who write in the midst of the French Revolution, nearly two centuries ago:

“....I love the generations of the centuries to come. For this is my most blessed hope, the faith which keeps me strong and active, that our grandchildren will be better than we. These seeds of enlightenment...for the improvement of the human race will spread and grow strong and bear glorious fruit.”

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Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project