Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control and Civil Liberties," 13 Oct. 1940.

Published Speech. Source: Community Church of Boston, "Birth Control and Civil Liberties"Oct. 13, 1940, pp. 3-18. , Margaret Sanger Microfilm S72:0216 .

Sanger gave this address at the Symphony Hall of the Community Church of Boston on Sunday October 13, 1940. For other versions see S72:0179.


Although the subject on which I am supposed to speak today is “Birth Control and Civil Liberties,” and for that matter the real issue at stake here in Massachusetts in regard to birth control is one of medical and individual rights any discussion of the very clear-cut issue immediately raises argument and controversy ranging over a wise variety of subjects, including morality, population, economics, and others. Therefore, to appreciate the extraordinary significance of the issue of personal and medical freedom in Massachusetts on birth control it is necessary to speak of those aspects first.

If any of you have recently visited either of the great World’s Fairs in New York or San Francisco, you like millions of others must have been amazed at the progress and advance made by science, invention and medicine during the past one hundred years.

Everywhere you found eloquent evidence of achievement in man’s control over the external forces of Nature.

We know that he has spanned the ocean; flung railroads across this and other continents; conquered the air; harnessed endless torrents of water power; invented devices and machinery to remove the burden of toil from the back of the human race. Through the lenses of his telescope he has explored distant planets. Through the lenses of his microscope he has waged relentless war on microbes and disease.

He has, in his latest victory, girded the globe in a fraction of a second through radio broadcasting. He has done everything to unite peoples and nations--to bring them closer together in understanding, in good will and for a common cause--in advance of Civilization.

Yet because he has neglected to harness and control that inner force of nature--the power of man’s own fertility; because he has allowed hordes of human beings to multiply beyond their capacity or ability to provide for themselves, we find humanity helpless against exploitation, hunger, misery and ignorance. We find today nations and peoples separated by jealousies and bitterness; calling for a place in the sun. And now as never before mankind is goaded on to a frenzy of aggression and world war.

As far back as 1925 scientists, economists and far-visioned statesmen sought to have the League of Nations consider the population question in making its plans for a permanent peace in Europe.

John Maynard Keynes, the distinguished British economist said then that the Peace Treaties of Europe may as well go into the waste basket, for without a consideration of Germany’s population growth in relation to her natural resources, there could be no peace in Europe, or indeed, perhaps for the entire world.

For the best part of the last century very little attention was given to the study of Population in relation to problems of health, poverty, unemployment or war. When however, the first World War revealed that Europe’s population had increased four hundred million within a century there was consternation and alarm, but also the secret hope that the war would weed out its surplus numbers.

History tells us that in 1800, Europe’s population was two hundred million, that during that century over fifty million of able bodied men and women emigrated to new lands, to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America. It was the Century of Migration--yet in spite of this, Europe found herself in 1914 with six hundred million inhabitants; so congested, so chaotic that the very force of these numbers exploded in a World War which nearly wiped out a civilization.

Since 1910 Germany had been sounding the alarm. Her authorities issued statements of warning to the world that her population was increasing to the explosion point; that her needs of expansion and land must dominate her every political and economic move. General Bernhardi in 1911 published this statement: “Strong, healthy, flourishing nations increase in numbers. From a given moment they require a continual expansion of their frontiers; they require new territory for the accommodation of their surplus population. Since almost every part of the globe is already inhabited, new territory must be obtained at a cost to its possessors, that is to say, by conquest, which thus becomes a law of necessity.” There was no mincing words in that statement, had the statesmen of Europe had eyes to read and ears to hear. Germany lost the first World War. She lost colonies, she lost manpower; millions of her people were killed or injured, or were starved to death. Yet in 1936 Germany had increased her population almost to the 1914 point; her density of population was as great if not greater. She was again shouting to the world that she must expand--by force if need be.

In 1936 General Goering issued this statement: “The territory in which the Germans now live is too small for the sixty-six million inhabitants. It will soon be too small for the seventy to eighty to ninety millions which we want to become.”

Hitler and Goering warned the world, as did Bernhardi, that Germany had reached the explosion point. Two other nations were in the same predicament. Italy and Japan. These became her allies.

In 1927, we held a Population Conference at Geneva, where three hundred distinguished economists, biologists, statisticians and sociologists assembled in the hope of developing some facts of population which could be used as a basis for a peace program. During that conference, Mussolini went before the Italian Chamber of Deputies, as if in reply to our invitation to Italy’s scientists to attend the conference, and said: “If Italy is to amount to anything she must enter into the second half of this century with a population of at least sixty million inhabitants. We must, at a given moment, be able to mobilize five million men, thoroughly armed. We must strengthen our navy, while our aviation must be on such a large scale, and so powerful, that the noise of its motors must surpass every other noise, and the area of the wings of our airplanes must obscure the sun from our land. Then between 1935 and 1940 we will be able to make Italy’s voice heard.”

Italy, like Germany, has since the end of last war spawned herself into another world conflict; and the culture of the world, yes, even civilization is marking time until Europe comes to her sense and settles these disputes by a sound population policy for every nation.

Let us not think that there will be peace of a permanent nature until these population problems are studied and a new light shed upon human needs and human rights to help in their solution. The day is past when a nation can breed to the expansion point without dire consequences. Mere limitation and control of armaments will not establish the peace of the world--but balance of the birth rates of various countries and control of the increase of population and its expansion and proper distribution of the natural resources of the world will.

It is now scientifically known what natural resources each nation has--what available tillable soil can support its numbers and how many. We know that it takes:

100 acres of good wheat soil to feed 200 persons with bread.

100 acres of milk producing pasture to provide 41 people with milk.

100 acres of beef producing pastures to feed 9 persons with meat every day.

We know this, and we know exactly the necessary acres of land to support the proper diet for health and wellbeing. We know that it takes 3 acres of good soil to produce the ideal diet of meat, milk, fruit and vegetables which is the standard for America, Canada, Australia and other low birth rate countries. In other lands like China, India, Japan and Central Europe, in fact over half the population of the world today lives almost entirely on cereals and never tastes meat, or vegetables during their entire lifetime.

Germany, Italy and Japan have been the danger signals to the Peace of the World, and their needs, desires and warnings have been heralded and broadcast over the world for the past twenty years. Why have we done nothing about it?

Our statesmen, our politicians, our men and women in high positions have taken the same irresponsible attitude that Archibald MacLeish says exists among scholars and writers and columnists claim that we could easily house continues to be written, history will have one question to ask of our generation, to people like ourselves--Why did you who witnessed the rise in your own country of the same destructive forces, with the same impulses--why did you fail to oppose those forces while you could?

The Irresponsibles are those in high places, with power and influence, who have failed to use their intelligence to promote peace, unity and understanding.

Let us take our own country and look into its problems. No one would think we had any problems resulting from population pressure. In fact, some of our writers and columnists claim that we could easily house 50 million more families in this country. Others claim that we could put our whole 132 millions into the State of Texas, and they would live happily every after. Well, I told this to a group of men in San Antonio, Texas last spring and howls of laughter went up, with groans from the ranchers who knew how many acres of land the State insists shall be given over to each head of cattle.

No my friends, let no one deceive you on this population question. We have today 131,500,000 of inhabitants. We increased 32 millions in 24 years, with very little of that increase through immigration. During the next thirty to forty years our population will increase to over 150,000,000. Yet in less than three generations we have stripped the topsoil of its fertility in order to keep our supply growing at a pace with our population. Unless we achieve a balance of population and resources swiftly through the scientific and humane policy of controlling births and reproduction, famine worse than the old world has ever known will intervene to control our population with the violent force of death.

On the subject of population quality we are not entirely unconscious. On the spurious argument of racial superiority, we closed the gates sharply to the Chinese and Japanese, even the most intelligent and educated. We shut down on persons with diseases, on the feeble-minded, morons, criminals, illiterates, insane, immoral or prostitutes--all barred from our shores; but on the question of domestic policy we didn’t have the courage to act. The same undesirable persons within our gates prior to that law’s enaction, could breed, increase and multiply these undesirable characteristics to the full. Never a word that persons with syphilis or other transmittable disease should not have children until they were cured. Never a word that criminals and known sadists, insane, feeble-minded or morons be prohibited from child bearing. We have, today, from three to five million feeble-minded wandering free outside our institutions because these are already too full for others to enter. There are laws to prevent the farmer and the rancher from breeding diseased sickly cows, horses or swine, but sickly, diseased, unfit parents are unable to get the same protection given to animal breeding. No nation--no economic system that human ingenuity could devise remains healthy and strong while such unfit human reproduction continued.

We have over 32 million women of child bearing age, many of whom are denied the right of knowledge to space and plan their family unless they are rich enough to consult a private physician.

The Surgeon General, Dr. Thomas Parran tells us that one-third of the nation (44 million of our people) are poorly clothed, poorly fed and poorly housed.

The Children’s Bureau reports over 50% of the children born in 1938 were from families with incomes from nothing to $19.00 a week. Dr. Parran also reports that one million mothers in this country are delivered of their babies, but have no after care--just left to look after themselves. Many of these mothers do not live through the ordeal--while a large percentage of these new born infants do not survive the first year--60,000 dies two weeks after birth; 78,000 are still births. Yet we pay millions in taxes to the government to provide for the health and welfare of these mothers who cannot pay for themselves.

The Children’s Bureau and the Public Health Service,--neither of them has yet had the courage or vision to extend to mothers under their care contraceptive advice which could save the lives of thousands; which could protect the health of thousands from the frequent pregnancies; which could aid hundred of thousands to provide for a planned and wanted family. These officials are appointed to serve the nation’s parents and children. Yet timid, visionless officials allow religious minorities to interfere with their medical duties. Here too is irresponsibility in high office.

Our infant mortality is still too high--far too high, and unncessarily so. Reports tell us that when pregnancies are spaced three years apart, only 86 babies in 1000 die; spacing of two years 98 die, while when spaced only one year apart 147 babies give up their lives.

Dr. Parran reports that our maternal death rate is among the highest and has not been appreciably reduced during the past twenty years. Well, why not? It’s the duty and business of these health officers to account for such neglect and sacrifice. Over one-quarter of a million of these mothers had no doctor to help them in this supreme function of child bearing. No wonder 150,000 mothers and babies died, 60% were needless deaths and in 25% of these cases, the condition was known before the woman became pregnant. Think of that my friends. It was not from ignorance of the facts that these mothers and babies died. Well then, why were these mothers allowed to become pregnant when their lives were threatened by that condition?

Maternal and infant mortality are serious concerns of the state. A recent editorial in Clinical Medicine, June 1940 states; “Figures are powerful evidence if not complete proof that birth control information; by reducing the number of pregnancies among women in unsatisfactory circumstances has permitted the mothers to come to labor in better physical condition and to receive more adequate professional care; that the reasonable spacing of pregnancies has resulted in the birth of stronger babies, so that although fewer are born in the family, more of them live and grow up, which represents a tremendous economic saving. That the fears of certain alarmists who have declared that knowledge of contraceptive technique would destroy the desire for parenthood, are wholly groundless.”

This editorial from one of the outstanding Medical Journals is typical of the support that has been arising during the past ten years to sweep away the medieval interference with medical science and to make contraceptive care a regular part of private and public medical care. Yet the mothers on farms, in tenements, in camps, in factories--are still unable to get birth control information from hospitals, dispensaries or public health units. These mothers who bring into the world approximately 60% of the nation’s babies, on relief or on a wage less than adequate to care for a growing family, are forced into child bearing through ignorance, fostered by an arrogant minority. This group of mothers perpetuate the same ailments, conditions, poverty, slums, ignorance and neglect from generation to generation. Nurses and social workers report, again and again, to State and National authorities regarding these conditions, realizing that their efforts are in vain and that all attempts to raise the standards of these parents are constantly defeated by the increasing numbers of children in these homes but no action is taken.

Millions have been appropriated to care for the unfit, the sick, the mentally diseased and feeble-minded in order to patch them up to enable them to breed a generation of physical and mental unfits. Over 6,000,000 persons under 21 years of age are subnormals, while 5,000,000 failed to go beyond the fourth grade in school. What condition our new recruits for National Defense are in will be a future story, but it is estimated that at least 80% of the volunteers for army service can not meet health requirements. We can not built an A-1 nation on 3-C material.

Your maternal death rate is 3.9 per 1,000 live births.

Your infant death rate is 39.9 per 1,000 live births.

The exceptional medial facilities which you enjoy in this State make your record in these respects somewhat better than that of the country as a whole. Yet, in the crowded industrial Massachusetts cities there is an appalling waste of human life as a result of the backwardness of the state in the matter of making contraceptive medical care available to those parents who need it most for the planning of their families.

At the same time, self-supporting working class and middle-class families are forced to reduce the size of their own families chiefly because through taxes and contributions to charity they are having to support the often un-wanted children, of other less competent parents. This burden of supporting the unwanted children, of unfit parents does not fall upon the rich. It falls upon every working and self-supporting family in this State and throughout the Nation as well to keep alive a stratum of our population who have nothing to give to civilization but who use up the energies and resources of this country.

As Professor Raymond Pearl has said: “there is a definitely increasing aggregate consciousness that the social burden of the biologically unfit, degenerate, and worthless portion of humanity is becoming intolerable, and that this further breeding will have to be stopped. Sensible men are not likely, indefinitely to permit a great part of the plenty that might be enjoyed by the fit to be wasted on a growing horde of sorry specimens that any intelligent breeder, or nature itself if permitted, would promptly eliminate--as of no biological worth.”

From a study of urban families made by Falk and Sanders in the middle cities of Chicago, New Castle, Pennsylvania, Springfield, Illinois, and quotes in the Milbank Quarterly, April 1940, it was found that:

Of families with no children, 13.3 per cent were on relief.

Of families with one child, 16.8 per cent were on relief.

Of families with two children--20.1 per cent on relief.

Of families with four children--35.9 per cent on relief.

and of families with eight children--56.7 per cent on relief.

And we find the same ratio existing when we study other health and welfare problems. When children are not spaced properly for the mother’s health and according to the father’s income, we find the same ratio in evidence. Thus spacing must be, and is, a part of the birth control program for Planned Parenthood. The first consideration should and must be the woman’s health; the second, the father’s earning ability; the third, standards of living for the parents and children; the fourth, which might well be the first--the quality of life to be passed on to the children.

But why planned parenthood at all? There are five clear and inescapable reasons why:

(1) Parents with transmissable disease should sacrifice their natural desire for children.

(2) Women with temporary physical ailments should use contraceptive means to avoid pregnancy until the disease is cured--diseases like tuberculosis, heart and kidney diseases and several others are disturbed and the cure delayed by pregnancy.

(3) Parents seemingly healthy themselves who have a child or children with mental defects, should refrain from having more.

(4) Every mother rich or poor, sick or well, should space her pregnancies from 18 months to three years in order to regain her own strength and to prepare her body for the coming of the next.

(5) And, perhaps, aside from these considerations one more reasons which is of vital importance to the future of our Country is the happiness of the family. The adolescent years are good years for marriage but parenthood is often more satisfactory after a brief waiting period. Young people who marry early or late often need the first year or two just to get acquainted to learn to know each other, and to make those adjustments, physical, mental, economic and spiritual, so necessary in building a companionship to endure through the years. If the first year or even two years can be free from pregnancy children invited into these homes come wanted before they are conceived. Here we lay the foundations for happy marriages and larger wanted families.

All of these arguments have been brilliantly stated by Catholic leaders in support of the so-called Rhythm Method of birth control. We who do not share the Catholic theological distinction between the Rhythm and medical methods are confident that the recognition of the need for birth control, on the part of so many Catholic officials and laymen marks the beginning of the end of religious controversy over this question. After all, there is something definitely pathological about the small and rapidly dwindling minority of people who are forced to accept the logic of birth control by the now official version of the church and yet become hysterical at the thought of birth control by scientific medical methods.

Let us state again with the scholars and scientists of the English speaking world who have given us the prestige of their names and the full weight of their influence--that there is no subject that has so large a practical significance and which at the same time, is so deeply imbeded into the foundations of social evolution.

George Bernard Shaw said it is the most revolutionary idea of this century. Julian Huxley says it will go down in history with the greatest achievements of the human intellect. Such as the invention of the stone hammer, mastery of fire, discovery of electricity and the invention of the art of printing. “Birth control has historical significance because its application means that population’s size, quality and growth can be brought under the control of foresight, reason and self control.”

During the past twenty years we have set up more than 580 demonstration clinics in the United States. We have over 80,000 records in one clinic in New York over a period of ten years, so we know what birth control practice does and can and will do. We know we have reduced deaths of countless mothers, and kept alive thousands of children. We have given knowledge to parents which has prevented separation and divorce. We have taken families off charitable and relief rolls by giving the wage earning father hope, and a chance to provide for those already born.

Our goal is now to level off our dysgenic birth rate by making contraceptive information available to all parents who need and want it, including the poorest parents on relief, on farms, on homestead, in slums and to all married people who depend upon existing public health or welfare agencies.

We know that the well-to-do and those able to have a private or family physician are equipped with knowledge. But the mothers seeking medical advice from hospitals or dispensaries are refused all help even though the life of the woman is endangered by another pregnancy. This can be remedied only when public health policies include this teaching in state programs.

I’ve talked about population, about health and planned parenthood. Now I want to talk about something that is closer and dearer to us today than ever before--individual human liberty. We have seen, tragically, in recent months, millions of people reduced to slavery; we have seen the human rights we think of here as inseparable from life itself, destroyed over night, every trace wiped away as if they had never existed.

Thus I say that at no time in history has it been so important that we here in the last remaining stronghold of human liberty keep that eternal vigilance that is the price of freedom; that we be alert to preserve our human rights--our civil liberties--in their full vigor. We must keep always before us that independent belief, held by your own Thoreau, that the State is the servant of the people, not the people of the State. I recall that famous episode when Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay his poll tax because he believed the Government was spending the tax payers’ money foolishly. Emerson, visiting him in prison, said: “What are you doing in there, Henry?” And Thoreau replied: “What are you doing out there, Ralph?”

Our civil liberties are well-defined--freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of worship. To me in equal measure with those, and perhaps even more deeply and intimately concerned with each individual, is the right of free men and free women to control, as best they may, their own destiny on earth; their right to undertake the deep and satisfying act of parenthood, not by chance or in ignorance, but in full knowledge of their responsibility--to the child, to themselves and to their nation. Only on this foundation can a free, sturdy and independent people build their collective life and maintain intact their liberties.

This year is the twenty-sixth anniversary of the beginning of the fight for the birth control movement in the United States. In those twenty-six years opponents of the movement have used virtually every means, in violation of American civil liberties, to destroy it. Spokesmen for the movement have been denied public platforms; editors have been threatened with economic loss if they did not suppress news of the movement; government authority has been misused in innumerable cases to prevent the circulation of literature. But to no avail. Slowly and surely the movement has become an ineradicable part of the nation’s life, and it cannot be stopped by cheap and lying propaganda.

Here in Massachusetts, seven clinics were closed under the provisions of an ancient law--at the behest of a religious minority which in this State wields the dominant political power. Thus Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to prohibit the operation of clinics which provide contraceptive care, under medical direction, to indigent mothers. Make no mistake about it--those who can afford to pay a private physician can get contraceptive advice. It is the poor, --the needy mothers, for whom each additional child is an almost unbearable burden, that this law strikes. One can think of no law that constitutes a more direct and intimate invasion of personal rights and freedom of religious conscience.

It’s time, I think, to bring this whole subject out of the dark and place it squarely before the people. It’s a people’s subject and if they want it enough, as they surely do, nothing on earth can stop it. (Even in Massachusetts).

James Truslow Adams, describing the temper of the times in 1850's wrote this: “The plain citizens everywhere felt a thrilling sense of freedom and power. To a crowd that pressed too closely upon a political procession, a gentleman at the head had called out, ‘Make way for the representatives of the people!’ ‘Make way yourself!’ was thundered back. “We are the People themselves.’”

You in Massachusetts are the people yourselves. It is up to you to say to your representatives--and to the minority group on whose orders they act--“Make way. We are the people themselves.” And if they do not do so, you have the power through the Initiative Petition and Referendum to assert your will as a free majority despite the opposition of any minority religious political block.

The issue here is clearly one of individual and medical rights. In this modern age in this great state, a doctor is guilty of a criminal offense if he utilizes the full resources of scientific advancement for the health and welfare of his patients--he is turned into a criminal and a bootlegger in order to benefit humanity. The right of mothers to the scientific means of spacing their children is forbidden. This is done in the name of morality. Yet curiously enough, the enforcement of this law also labels highly placed Catholic leaders as immoral and criminal. For the Massachusetts statute is so sweeping in its absurdity as to make the sale of the Rhythm book by Dr. Leo Latz and other books on this subject bearing the imprimatur of the late Cardinal Hayes of New York, illegal in this State--although, of course, the sale of this book giving an ineffective substitute for medical birth control has never been prosecuted. Also, curiously enough, under this out-moded statute certain contraceptive articles can be sold legally in the state whenever there is no proof that they are to be used as contraceptives. Under the September, 1940 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court the commercial traffic in spurious and even dangerous contraceptives that has long flourished, in bootleg fashion within the shadow of every pulpit in Massachusetts, winked at by the guardians of morality can now flourish openly under easy legal subterfuge. All this in the name of morality. This hypocrisy must be swept away by the united action of free and healthy minds to the end that the scientific knowledge we call birth control will be in the hands of those to whom it belongs--the qualified physician.

Once in human history quinine was refused to malaria sufferers in the name of morality. Vaccination against small pox, immunization, the germ theory of disease, the use of anesthesia, the cell theory of life--all these once were opposed in the name of morality.

The Reverend Dr. John Haynes Holmes said a few years ago: “If imparting knowledge of how to space births,--how to safeguard mothers--and how to help married people produce normal, vigorous children; if that is encouraging immorality--then I’m immoral. In true fact, birth control education is an expression of the highest form of morality--morality dedicated to the great end of preventing human suffering--saving the lives of mothers and children--fostering community health and welfare. This is what I mean by morality: the service of mankind.”

A petition to make legal contraception on medical advice and for medical indications or health reasons is now before the Attorney General of this State. This petition must have 20,000 signatures of voters by November 15th in order to present a bill to the legislature. You can then use your organized strength to get the legislature to adopt it. And even if the legislature should fail in its clear duty you can, in the privacy of the election booth November, 1942, enact this fundamental measure directly into law. It will take some of that old pioneer pluck,, courage and vision of our forefathers to campaign for this fundamental right. It is pioneering truly against arrogance and bigotry. Threats of boycott, every mean and despicable trick of a vicious minority will be used against this brave and valiant little group, but the common sense and native intelligence of the majority will quietly prevail and win.

It is in your hands--for you are the People themselves.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson--“The will of the majority, the natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man.”

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Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project