Margaret Sanger, "National Security and Birth Control," Mar 1935.
Published article. Source: Forum and Century (1930-1940) Mar. 1935 p. 139-141; Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College , MSMS71:741 .
Men and women often congratulate me upon having won my long battle for birth control. Their attention has been arrested, perhaps, by those skilfully composed advertisements for commercial contraceptives which are now accepted by great metropolitan dailies and highly respectable monthlies. Therefore these good folk erroneously assume that all legal obstacles to the dissemination of birth-control information have been wiped off our statutes. Time after time I am called on to explain, with such patience as I can summon to this tiresome task, that this assumption is far from the truth. In this enlightened year of the New Deal, 1935, the Penal Code of the United States still classifies the science of contraception with filthy French photographs and its advocates and practitioners as lewd, lacivious, and obscene criminals, threatening punishment by heavy fines and long sentences in federal penitentiaries.
Permit me to summarize the actual status of our present federal laws involving the delicate question of contraception.
Section 211 of the United States Penal Code prohibits the sending or receiving by and from the United States mails information and supplies pertaining to the prevention of conception. There are no exemptions.
Section 245 of this same code prohibits the sending or receiving by an express company or common carrier of information or supplies relating to the prevention of conception. There are no exemptions.
Sections 311 and 312 pertain to the Territories and Districts under federal control and are even more rigid in their prohibitions, declaring that even the possession of any article intended for the prevention of conception constitutes a crime. No exemptions!
Convictions under these statutes are punishable by the imposition of fines ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 or imprisonment for five years or both.
Twenty-one years ago, when I began to challenge the ethical validity of these laws, the tragic effects of passive and unthinking submission to them were obvious to anyone with eyes to observe. This national tragedy was reflected in a high infant-mortality rate, the evils of child labor, and the prevalence of that most desperate remedy, abortion. Scientific research in the technique of contraception was nonexistent. Hospitals, clinics, medical societies, and schools could not jeopardize their very existence by any overt defiance of the laws of the land, even if they recognized the importance of the problem. The same restrictive and blighting effect exists to-day. Not only are these federal statutes in conflict with state laws, but they are endlessly confusing to scientists and physicians legitimately concerned in genetic research and racial health. In those states which permit, even with certain restrictions, the dissemination of contraceptive advice, physicians are compelled to bootleg the interstate transportation of supplies and reports, since the United States mails and even the common carriers must not be sullied by such information! While certain courageous physicians may indeed ignore the existence of these statutes in their private practice, the policies of hospitals, clinics and medical schools cannot admit transactions specifically condemned as against the statutes of the Penal Code.
Our first task was to tear aside the heavy veils of silence which shrouded the whole subject; next, to inaugurate the interminable task of enlightening public opinion, a job which brought with it ridicule and stinging denunciation, not to mention police raids, indictments, and jails. However, we succeeded finally in opening clinics and in keeping them open--after long legal battles and with definite and narrow restrictions. We have won the adherence of enlightened public opinion. But still those sections of the Penal Code have remained unchanged, unamended, still a menace to social and economic security.
With the revolution in public opinion concerning the ethical validity of birth control, with indeed the advent of a more liberal and less puritanical era, we have witnessed the rise to power of a class which can be compared only to the late unlamented bootlegger. Fully conscious of the legal restrictions concerning the prevention of conception, the larger and more reputable wholesale druggists, financially well able to establish research projects to investigate the chemistry of contraception, remain nevertheless reluctant to enter a field which might involve them in legal difficulties. But others are less scrupulous, greedier for immediate profits. The charlatan, the little fellow, fully cognizant of the desperation of thousands upon thousands of mothers (discovered sometimes by house-to-house canvassing), began to put on the market more-or-less-thinly disguised contraceptives. These products are not described as contraceptives but, ambiguously, as aids to feminine hygiene and so forth. No overt promises are made, no guarantees given. Clever copywriters in advertising agencies solve this delicate problem by suggestive ambiguity. The rewards, apparently, have been enormous. Today the advertisements of such dubious products appear in respectable dailies and monthlies which even fifteen years ago jeered at me for the indecency of mentioning birth control and for daring to challenge the federal government to send me to its penitentiary.
Careful laboratory tests have been made of a large number of these so-called commercial contraceptives, with this synthetic names. In chemical analyses of the spermicidal power of some thirty-two of these products now actually on the market, no fewer than forty-five per cent failed to kill the sperm in one or more of three tests. At least twenty-five per cent showed serious defects in mechanical functioning, such as power of dissolving, volume and stability of foam, and so on. Yet these products are elaborately displayed in drugstore windows, their function suggested with all the skill and persuasion of the advertising art, and never--to evade conflict with the federal statutes--are they actually described as contraceptives. Retailed at cruelly exorbitant prices, they exploit the desperation, the ignorance, the hopes, and the credulity of millions of American women, whose hygienic and sexual education is specifically forbidden by federal statute.
The commercial success of such products is but one more demonstration of the existence of the universal demand for contraceptive knowledge, of that submerged class of underfed and overbred motherhood, praying silently or crying aloud in anguish for deliverance from the incessant toil of childbearing, as expressed by thousands of letters still pouring in, pleading for knowledge. The emergence of the “safe-period” theory sponsored by Catholic writers and doctors--a dubious compromise, with no guarantee of certainty or reliability--is indicative that even the archenemy of birth control, the Roman Catholic Church, must find some answer to the increasing demands of its women. But, like the commercial contraceptives, the rhythmic theory of “lawful” and “natural” birth control can give no assurance of certainty, tested reliability, nor of universal efficacy.
Such manifestations demonstrate that indiscriminate dissemination of birth control “knowledge” is fraught with danger. On the basis of study of fertility and contraception among 4,945 married women,* a distinguished Johns Hopkins scientist reaches the conclusion that hundreds and hundreds of women who do not practice contraception are pleading for information so that they may.
The logic of our results would seem to point clearly and unequivocally to the probability that prompt removal of all legal restriction to the free dissemination of contraceptive information, and barriers to the unrestricted distribution of contraceptive devices, would tend to have the effect of bringing the differential fertility of social classes more nearly into balance again. . . . It seems clear that if the restrictions . . . were removed, it might somewhat lighten the burden of poverty with which our children and grandchildren bid fair to be faced. *Raymond Pearl: A Study of Family Limitation. “Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly,” July 1934.
That the birth rate is highest and the family largest in what we term the lowest social class in this country--the unemployed and those already supported by relief agencies--is a fact universally recognized. This differential birth rate has not only persisted, but has been emphasized by the depression. On the basis of a recent survey, Messrs. Edgar Sydenstricker and G. St.J. Perrott point out that
low social status, unemployment and low income in 1932 went hand in hand with a high illness rate and increased malnutrition among children. It was in these same groups of families that a high birth rate prevailed. Whatever the broad implications of the findings may be, it is evident that a high birth rate during the depression prevailed in families which could least afford, from any point of view, to assume this added responsibility.
This, despite the added fact that today thousands of potential mothers, rather than bring children into a hostile world, are willing to run the risk of the most dangerous remedy of all--abortion. A conservative investigator, Fred J. Taussig, M.D., estimates that approximately 800,000 abortions are performed every year in the United States.
With a mortality rate of 2.1 per cent for these 800,000 abortions, the number of annual deaths from abortion is about 17,000.
Furthermore, the same authority assures us that there can be no question of the existence of an abortion “racket” by which the professional abortionist has to pay for protection. City officials and the criminal classes, he thinks, divide this graft.
The profiteer, the bootlegger, and the abortionist are reaping their ill-gotten gains undisturbed by the existing statutes. If, as Dr. Pearl suggests, all restrictions for the free dissemination of birth-control information should be removed, we must exercise foresight in assuring that contraception and its technique should be placed in competent hands. Upon the basis of the results obtained in our research clinics, now conducted without violation of New York State laws, we are certain that this technical aspect of contraception is first and foremost a medical problem which requires expert diagnosis for individual solution. It is upon this basis that the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control is urging the passage by Congress of two bills amending the federal statutes summarized earlier. These bills (S600 and HR2000), already introduced would dissociate the idea of contraception from that of obscenity and would sanction the use of the United States mails by physicians giving contraceptive information; likewise the sale of contraceptives by druggists filling the prescriptions of such duly licensed physicians. It would apply also to medical colleges, hospitals, and clinics licensed in any state or territory or the District of Columbia, with the exception of a state in which such use is specifically prohibited by law.
National planning for economic and social security can, in the long run, produce no real benefits unless such plans be based upon the cornerstone of family security through family planning. As long as the procreative instinct is allowed to run reckless riot through our social structure, there can be no real family security. As long as the New Deal and our paternalistic Administration refuse to recognize this truism, grandiose schemes for security may eventually turn into subsidies for the perpetuation of the irresponsible classes of society. Social workers and palliative specialists who have become accustomed to the administration of charities and whose personal prestige is rooted in their careers as directors of the destinies of the hopelessly indigent unconsciously resent any program that threatens the existence of that class. Most of them prefer their own rose-water deodorants to any fundamental policy which would automatically revolutionize conditions of the underprivileged and help them to help themselves.
If children are to be brought into the world by chance--inert, undernourished, victims of hereditary diseases-- to be brought into a world to live their lives as dependent and indigents; if, in short, this differential birth rate is to be still further widened between classes, the doom of this nation is already written. If our New Dealers turn a deaf ear to the cries of the Forgotten Woman, they are attempting to solve the problem of economic security without due consideration for the basic human factors involved in that problem, which must be recognized.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project