Margaret Sanger, "Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control," April 1931.

Published article. Source: The Pro and Con Feature: Proposed Federal Legislation on Birth Control, Congressional Digest, April 1931, 104-108. , Margaret Sanger Microfilm, C16:316 .

For the rest of the testimony see MSM C15:752.


Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control

Margaret Sanger

The essential object of the Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in supporting this bill is to amend the existing Federal laws which prevent the dissemination through the mails of information relating to the subject of contraception. We want to make it possible for motherhood to be conscious and controlled. We want to make it possible for mothers to have safe, scientific information to prevent conception so that they may regulate the size of their families, so that they may space out the number of children in the family in consideration of the mother’s health, of the father’s earning capacity, and of the welfare of each child.

This is the first time that this particular kind of a bill has been introduced in the Senate. The reason it has been referred to as the doctor’s bill is to distinguish it from other pieces of legislation on the same general subject, especially one bill that was introduced in Congress in 1925, and known as the “open bill.” That bill aimed to take the whole subject of the prevention of conception out of the law, while this bill only asks that exceptions shall be made in these laws for physicians and for the regular practice of the medical profession.

We not only want motherhood to be a conscious and controlled function but we want parenthood to be something other than the consequences of a reckless, careless shiftlessness. We want parenthood to be regarded as a fine instrument, a noble trust, a splendid assignment, and it can be so considered when it becomes a conscious responsibility.

In the laws, which this bill, Senate 4582, will amend, contraceptive information has been classed with obscenity, pornography, and abortion. Information concerning contraception does not belong there.

Section 211 of the criminal code was passed by Congress in 1873 and at that time very little was known of the technique of contraception. Gradually knowledge of its importance has grown. The need for better information, for more scientific data on this important subject has been recognized. And there has gradually arisen in this country a movement in favor of birth control. We find today that parents consider birth control information not only a health measure, not alone an economic expedient, but a principle of social welfare by which the future advancement of the individual and the country itself is safeguarded.

These laws which we are trying to amend have made no exception in their prohibitions for literature of a scientific character. Nor have they made an exception for the physician in his regular practice, or for hospitals or clinics, or for patients of these hospitals or clinics or physicians, or for the general and proper distribution of medical supplies.

These laws interfere with the importation of articles, and of the results of research which is undertaken in other countries. Such data and such results of laboratory research would be of great assistance to the medical profession of this country in the proper functioning of their profession.

These Federal laws interfere with the proper dissemination of information to prevent conception in 47 States of this Union although there are already laws in those States enabling physicians to give advice to patients in their regular practice and there are in this country today over 50 legally operating birth-control clinics distributed over 12 States. These birth-control clinics are medically established and medically directed, and have been organized solely for the purpose of giving contraceptive information by the medical profession.

The bill that we are advocating asks that the Federal laws which it would amend shall not apply to any licensed physician or hospital or clinic when the desired information has been published in the United States or without the United States by any governmental agency, medical society, medical school, or medical journal, nor shall it apply to reprints after such publication. This bill also asks that the name and address of any physician, hospital, or clinic where such birth-control advice is legally given may be sent through the mails.

There is nothing in this bill which makes it mandatory or compels anyone to use this knowledge of contraception. There is nothing in this bill which makes any physician read such literature or which makes anyone apply for such literature, but we do ask for the thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of mothers who in many cases are inarticulate to ask this for themselves; we ask that these mothers have the right to go to their physician, to apply to their hospitals or clinics, and get proper scientific information suitable for their individual requirements.

This bill leaves the law exactly as it was, except that we remove the subject of the prevention of conception from the clause relating to indecency, obscenity, and pornography, and place it in the hands of the medical profession, where it rightfully belongs. We fully concur in the prevention of the distribution of pornographic or obscene literature. We believe, however, that it is unfair to classify medical and scientific information or literature in this class and that is places a great hardship upon the general practice of the medical profession and upon our welfare agencies. The effect of keeping these laws on our statute books is to increase the surreptitious circulation of unscientific or harmful information which tends to increase crime and to multiply abortions.

It is also roughly estimated that, since that law was passed, over 15,000,000 children have passed out of life during their first year of infancy, many of them were children born in conditions of poverty and their mothers’ ill health. A great majority of them may have been living today had their mothers had a chance to recuperate from the ordeal of previous pregnancy instead of using up the capital of the child before it was born.

The inference has been, and it has been constantly stated, that the bill that we are proposing would open the United States mails and common carriers to pornographic and obscene literature. I deny that allegation. I think that such statements wilfully misrepresent what this bill specifically intends to do. It is untrue to say that the bill would practically remove all existing restriction. We only ask that the medical profession in this country should have the right to receive contraceptive articles and literature, and that medical journals should have the right to issue such articles, which are almost always of a scientific nature. I should think that the medical profession would resent the statements that the articles which we are asking to have legally sent through the United States mails are articles that might be designated as pornographic and obscene. I should think that was and should be considered an insult to the profession.

I want to call attention to two of the resolutions that have been passed by branches or departments of the American Medical Association. The American Medical Association itself has not taken a stand on this bill, but I wish to point out that two of its principal departments or sections have put themselves on record in favor of the principle of this kind of legislation. The first resolution was passed by the section on obstetrics, gynecology, and abdominal surgery at Atlantic City, May 29, 1925:

Resolved, That we hereby recommend the authorization of existing laws wherever necessary so that physicians may legally give contraceptive information to their patients in the regular course of practice.”

Further, the American Gynecological Society at the same time indorsed the following amendment to the existing Federal laws: “Standard medical works, standard medical and scientific journals, and reprints therefrom, which contain information with reference to the prevention of conception are not nonmailable under this section.”

Now, these are the two departments or sections of the American Medical Association most intimately concerned with the question of contraception, with child bearing, and with mothers’ and women’s health.

When the American Federation of Labor went on record, as far as the letter read at the hearings in Congress was concerned, it referred to a bill of 1925, a bill that was not sponsored by the committee that supports Senate bill 4582 now. This is the first time that this bill has ever been introduced in the Senate, and the opposition of the Federation of Labor was directed to another kind of bill entirely. This bill asks only that the medical profession, medical books, journals and reprints therefrom, and articles designed for the prevention of conception, used by the medical profession in hospitals, clinics, and so forth, shall have the right to use the United States mails and common carriers.

A circular sent out by the National Catholic Welfare Conference stated that this bill was drafted and introduced at the request of the Voluntary Parenthood League. That statement is untrue. This bill is sponsored by the Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, and it has not been endorsed by the Voluntary Parenthood League at all.

I have never sanctioned nor given permission for the use of my name nor indorsed any article on contraception. Nor have I allowed the use of my name for any commercial purposes whatsoever, and I protest against the statement and the insinuation that certain devices and medical supplies have my name or my sanction. Something was said here this morning about the Soviet Government of Russia approving of birth control. The whole birth-control movement was begun in this country in 1914 before there was a Soviet Government, and indeed I feel highly complimented if we have been able to bring sane, safe, and constructive ideas about the control of population to the Soviet Government.

Not only governments like Russia, but the British Government has also gone on record through certain of its departments as approving of the practice of birth control. Just within the last year the Lambeth Conference in England sanctioned the right of individuals to practice birth control according to their conscience.

The British Medical Association has also gone on record in favor and the Ministry of Health in England has approved the practice of allowing the patients who come to the maternal and infant welfare centers to have contraceptive advice by Government authority.

The controversy really concerns the question of differing methods of birth control. The method of self-control recommended by some is open to them. They may use such methods. We are not imposing any method upon any individuals. There are said to be 120,000,000 people in this country, and I suppose that a large part of that number, perhaps 15,000,000, we will say to be generous, or even 20,000,000, are Catholics, but there are 105,000,000 left who are non-Catholics. They are not imposing any legislation upon the Catholics. We in no way try to inflict our ideas upon them. They have a perfect right to use the method of self-control if they wish, but we do believe that we have just as much right under the Constitution to enjoy health, peace, and the right to the pursuit of happiness as we see it.

The group at the hearings who represented perhaps certain moral organizations of the country, seem to me to be like the boy who is whistling to keep up courage. No doubt there has been a falling away from grace, we might say, in the past several years, and they who represent such moral standards must see that they have failed to a considerable extent when we consider that they have had so much power. They have had the laws with them, the wealth, the press, and yet they have come today to say they are afraid of the morals of their people if they have knowledge, if they do not continue to be kept in fear and ignorance. Then I say their morality is not very deep.

We have birth-control clinics that are legally operating throughout the United States, and in almost every one of the birth-control clinics we have the same records. Women come to us, regardless of religion, desperate women, women trying to live decently, trying to avoid the conditions that unwanted pregnancy and too frequent pregnancy bring. These women come in equal proportions. It runs about 33 per cent Protestant, 32 per cent Catholics, and 31 per cent Jewish women. They all come with the same cry, “Give us a chance to space our children. It is not that we do not love children, because we do love them; but because we want to give them a better chance than we have had, and we know that another child born into this family only deprives the children that are already here of a decent living with the ideals that we have for them.”

Further, when you get 570 Catholic women in one clinic, with 497 of them confessing abortions, I say that it is time for us all to consider this problem intelligently. It is time for us all to consider a fundamental need, the fundamental question that is involved here. Catholic women are no different from any other women. It is all the same. The great majority of women who come to birth-control clinics are seeking some means of controlling the size of their family because heretofore they have had to resort to these harmful methods. This is what we are trying to eliminate. We are trying to save mothers from this great hardship, from this unnatural ordeal. In the past many women who desired to control the size of their families have had to resort to an interruption of pregnancy, a method of which we disapprove, and which this law is going to do away with eventually, I am quite certain.

We want children to be conceived in love, born of parents’ conscious desire, and born into the world with healthy and sound bodies and sound minds.


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