Margaret Sanger, "Shall the Citizens of Boston be Allowed to Discuss Changing Their Laws?," 26 May 1929.
Published speech. Source: Clarence R. Skinner, Ed.,A Free Pulpit in Action, New York: 1931, 172-85 , MSMC16:0351 .
Sanger gave this speech at the Boston Community Church, along with Clarence R. Skinner. In the transcript of the question and answer session following the speech, questions not addressed to Margaret Sanger have been omitted. For a similar version see LCM 130:226.
It was Victor Hugo who said that there is no force in the world so great as that of an idea whose hour has struck. I believe that the hour for birth control has struck, because there is no other question that has so large a practical significance, which, it seems to me, cuts so deeply into the foundations of social evolution. There is no other question of equal importance that has been left so long in obscurity, and yet I think it is safe to say that there is no other question that has so dramatically arisen upon our horizon of national and international interest as this subject has within the past ten years. Ten years ago it was a Federal offense to discuss the merits of birth control, and to write or to print that discussion and to send it through the United States mails.
This battle for free discussion of birth control has had far better success in its being fought out in the courts rather than in the legislatures. George Bernard Shaw says that this idea is the most revolutionary of the twentieth century; H. G. Wells says that it is the most momentous fact of modern life, and he is inclined to believe that birth control is the intelligence test of modern life.
I believe that this is a very fitting place--in a church--to stand for the right to discuss this great subject. I also believe that with the change of opinion, with the education that is constantly going on in this country, we may yet see the same thing happen that happened to me in Los Angeles a few months ago. I went there to speak, and was met at the station by a large group of camera and newspaper and moving picture men, and also accompanying this group was a group of policewomen. This was not altogether new in my experience, but to my great amazement and surprise one of the policewomen stepped forward and said: "We, policewomen of Los Angeles, extend to you a hearty welcome." That was a new experience in this long, interesting battle for the right to discuss the merits of birth control. I was not quite sure whether that welcome was the spirit of California or whether it was the gentle influence of the women in the police department.
But I arrived back in New York and went to work in the Research Bureau pondering over this great manifestation of intelligence and hospitality. Soon my mind was put at rest, because about four weeks ago, while we were quietly attending to the hundreds of poor, wretched, spiritless women who come to our birth control clinic, we were invaded by seven policemen and two policewomen, who came into our clinic and arrested two of our doctors and three of our nurses. I began to realize that it was not the gentle spirit of the policewomen in the department of California. One of the policewomen had come to us as a decoy patient and said that she was the mother of three children. She was given information, she was treated as all patients are treated, kindly, considerately, and went through the usual routine. She came back again to discuss the merits of the subject in its practical aspect in her particular case, and was again given certain consideration, and then on the third visit she brought her friends, the policewomen and seven policemen.
The doctors were herded into the usual Black Maria, taken to the police station, and treated as common, ordinary lawbreakers, and were about to be finger printed when some of us, knowing something about the offense, stopped that process.
A very great piece of good fortune happened at this time. The policewoman who was conducting the raid did not really know the law herself, and she began to go through the files, our medical records, and helped herself right and left to one hundred and fifty cards that seemed to be easiest for her to take and several other very important histories. The Irish say that it is a poor wind that does not blow good for some one, and this certainly was the wind that blew good for us, because she, in taking these records, attacked and invaded the most precious rights of the medical profession, and this aroused the indignation of the medical men and women of New York. A mass meeting was held; the doctors came to testify in our behalf; and I do not know of any time in the past fifteen years when there has been such indignation and such an aroused interest as this police raid aroused in New York City among all sections of the community--in clubs, women's organizations, men's clubs in Wall Street, churches. Medical meetings were held, protest meetings, and without qualification the expressed indignation was sent to the Police Department, with the result that Grover N. Whalen, the Police Commissioner, apologized to the Academy of Medicine, and as a gesture for good behavior in the future, he demoted the policewoman who conducted the raid. But even better than that, doctors of such distinction of Foster Kennedy, the neurologist, and Frederick Haddon, and Ex-Chief Commissioner of Health, Louis Harris, took the witness stand and testified to our right to establish and run this birth control clinic; and not only that, but they testified that a woman had a right to knowledge of birth control, not only for the cure or prevention of disease but also to space the births in her family. By that testimony of these experts we won more in that great decision than we would win fighting in the legislature. Our case was dismissed by the magistrate. It was impossible for them to do otherwise, by the opinion that was so marvelously expressed in every avenue of thought, liberty and freedom in New York City.
Now, the laws in this country are peculiar. In New York State we have two laws, first Section 1142, which, like your law in Massachusetts, states that no one can give to anyone information to prevent conception. But some one in New York was a little wiser in making laws than you in Massachusetts, and they made another law offsetting the severity of Section 1142, and Section 1145 states that any physician lawfully practicing can give such advice to patients for the cure or prevention of disease. That law was put on the books just a little later than Section 1142, but in all my nursing experience I never found any doctor who interpreted it for himself. To test out this law I had two women, one with a severe transmissible disease, taken to every hospital and dispensary in New York and Brooklyn, and with the exception of one hospital, they were refused advice. They were told that they could come back and be treated for their various ailments, and that in case of pregnancy, there might be an interruption to save their lives, but so far as birth control advice was concerned, this was a Sing Sing offense and they could not give it. That was a challenge for me, for some one in the community to test out that law; and I, in 1916, opened a clinic in a very overcrowded section of Brooklyn. I could not get a doctor to help, but got some nurses, and together we announced that we were going to give all married women advice in regard to conception; we were going to challenge the constitutionality of that law.
We were all arrested and spent one month in jail, but we carried that case to the highest courts, and in that conviction and testing out this law we received from the Court of Appeals a decision that the conviction was sustained because I was not a physician, but that any physician lawfully practicing in New York State had a right to give contraceptive advice under Section 1145; and then there was a labored interpretation and definition of the word "disease." In fact, I think instead of going to a medical dictionary the court went to Webster's, and they got a definition of disease which was broader.
When we got that decision it was time to act, and we opened another clinic in 1923. We had a physician in charge. We took only cases for the prevention or cure of disease as interpreted by the court, and we went on increasing our nurses and staff until a few weeks ago. We had been investigated by the Academy of Medicine, by the State Board of Charities, and the City Board of Health and found running in good order and according to the laws, so that you can imagine our surprise and dismay to have the police officials come in there to try to break up this work. I refuse to accept that the police department are the authorities to investigate a medical organization that is conducted by the medical profession.
You in Massachusetts have a law even more vicious than that in New York State, because after all there is a little leeway to our law. The physicians in this state cannot give advice even for transmissible disease, even when the woman is suffering from tuberculosis or heart disease, in which we know that a pregnancy endangers and threatens her life. The best the physician can do is to interrupt her pregnancy and send her back home with a death sentence hanging over her head.
That is what you are standing for in Massachusetts to-day, and the hands of the medical profession are tied. They are not here to challenge laws, they are here to obey the laws. It is for us as citizens to see that the laws are changed so that they shall have full freedom in doing their work.
In respect to this law Massachusetts is the blackest state in the Union. I believe that all it takes in this state is a handful of courageous citizens to stand behind a birth control clinic. Get your doctor, if he wants to be a martyr, to interpret the law from a medical point of view to stand behind this group, and take it to the highest court, not only in this state but of the United States; and I am perfectly positive as I stand here to-day that you will win, because that is the force of a right idea whose hour was struck. You can no longer deny to a doctor his right to save a woman's life, and information to prevent conception will do that.
In our organization of this clinical research bureau we have had over 13,000 women who have come to us within this period of time. We have more women who come to us to-day than we can possibly take care of. We have the charity associations, the social organizations, doctors and nurses who send to us women who should be taken care of and should be instructed and advised, and we take them. In fact, if we had ten clinics in New York City to-day they would be filled, and to me that is the marvelous part of this movement to-day. It is not a movement like others in which you must inject the idea into the minds of the public. This is a movement that is far ahead of the organization to administer to it. Women everywhere in the poor walks of life are asking, begging for information to free them from excessive child bearing; they are asking doctors, midwives, nurses, for advice.
In our federal law we also have a law (Section 211) which will not allow anyone, not even a doctor, to send information through the mails, even to another doctor. He cannot send a book, a pamphlet, anything written or printed, or any material or article designed to prevent conception. And worst of all, we cannot tell you in case there was a clinic or a physician in this stat where it might be legal to have information, the federal law will make it a crime, with five years' imprisonment to tell you to go to that doctor or give his name. So we have two things to do, first, change your state law, and then clear up this federal law, which also is injurious to the proper functioning of the medical profession.
Not long ago one of our contributors had deducted his contribution from his income tax. It was challenged by the government which claimed that he had supported an illegal organization. As we were incorporated under the laws of New York State, it was rather a surprise to say that we were illegal, and we were shown a letter which I had written to a woman in Baltimore telling her to go to Johns Hopkins Medical Department where we know physicians do give advice on birth control. It was perfectly legal for the doctor of the state of Maryland to give her advice, but it was illegal for me under the federal law to tell her to go to that hospital and doctor.
We have found in our clinic and in the work we are doing there that it is no longer a question of what birth control is going to do. We know what it will do. We know what it has done in the past five years. We know that it is able and that it is reducing infant and maternal mortality. We have thousands of these women who have come to us as a last chance to save their lives, to whom their physicians have said, "One more pregnancy and I cannot be responsible for your life." And these women are living to-day, and their health is improving; they are living to bring up their three or four children better. Homes have been made happier. We have seen the good results of birth control. We proclaim that in the first place, any many or woman suffering from a transmissible disease, such as syphilis, insanity, or feeble-mindedness, such a couple should not have children. We further say that any mother or woman suffering from heart disease, tuberculosis, etc., should not become a mother until her disease is cured. Third, we say that those parents who already have subnormal children should not have more children. We further say that women should have information to prevent conception in order to space the births of the children, that there should be at least two years, and three years is even better in many cases, to give the woman a chance to recuperate, to regain her health and strength after the ordeal of the birth, to give her a chance to enjoy her motherhood and to prepare for the next one.
Further than that we cannot go. But I maintain that we must change our laws and public opinion so that we may go further, and so that any man or woman who is unable to support two children should not be allowed to have nine or ten. We further say that a young couple starting out their life together in marriage with happiness and hopes of adventure, should not take upon themselves the responsibility of parenthood until they have adjusted their married lives first. We want them to have a year or two just to get acquainted, just to know each other, and after all it is not so easy adjusting themselves in this day. It is a great responsibility, and love is one of those tender plants that has to be nurtured, has to be given sunshine and health in order to strengthen it to grow. What chance have we to strengthen the bonds of marriage when a young couple starts out so gayly and joyously in marriage and finds itself in the condition of parenthood before they have adjusted their lives.
We have never given womanhood a chance. We have given motherhood too many burdens; and I claim it is time for us to speak up for womanhood and to make womanhood something lovely and have it precede motherhood. Womanhood has its best possibility for growth and happiness after marriage. You find a young girl going from girlhood into motherhood without any chance to prepare for motherhood by blossoming out to fulfill her destiny as a mother. Birth control is going to make for happier lives, better lives and better marriages, when women have a chance to adjust themselves to the husband, to the man they love; when there is a chance to think, prepare, enjoy, to build up the cultural side of their lives. When children are coming to them by choice, plan, and not by accident, we find that women not only have their first and second child, but their third and fourth child, and enjoy each one of them in the process. That is what we want in the future. We want children to be conceived in love, born of the parents' conscious desire, and given the heritage of sound bodies and minds. We further want the young to look upon their bodies as holy temples and to make these bodies fit and perfect instruments of the soul, to take their part in the mysteries of material being.
Q. (Mrs. Sanger.) Tell us something about some of the European countries which have sanctioned birth control, and the results, especially in Holland.
A. In Europe to-day there are only two countries, France and Italy, in which information of birth control cannot be given. England is making tremendous strides. There are already twenty-six clinics there, and a fight is going on to have the government allow information to be given at the maternal centers. The House of Lords went on record with a resolution asking the government to have this happen. Holland is perhaps the inspiration of us all in this movement. Up to 1914 there was the lowest infant mortality in the three cities where this was going on, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague. There was a decreasing birth rate. There was the highest standard of education for children; there was less prostitution, and especially with the native inhabitants, of any country in Europe. I cannot say what has happened since 1914. Holland is a splendid example of what birth control will do when it is properly organized and directed.
Q. What has the birth control group done to influence physicians to protect these clinics, and also to bring pressure upon legislators?
A. The best that we could do was to find a physician who was courageous enough to give us two years of his time to go out into the country to address medical societies. That is the way we have been able to get the medical profession and societies to have some understanding of what we are trying to do, and I think we are succeeding.
Q. What do you find to be the greatest secret source of opposition to your work?
A. I should say that ignorance was the greatest secret force, but I should say that the Roman Catholic Church was the greatest outward, open force opposed to the birth control movement.
Q. Can you tell us the information in the pamphlets which were being sold in New York City in the streets in February?
A. I do not know about any pamphlets which were sold in February. I know that there is the Birth Control Review which is a magazine which is sold at the Grand Central Station and at Thirty-fourth and Thirty-fifth Street. That is a monthly magazine, perfectly proper, with mailing privileges in the United States post office.
Q. If the law be not enforced, will not the unmarried mother take advantage of that law?
A. In our experience we have had some unmarried mothers come to us, but they have come to be placed where they could take care of their babies. So far as unmarried women coming to us, we have had a few, perhaps a very small percentage, when they have had a condition of health which would not justify their marriage or pregnancy after marriage. In all of these cases we ask them to bring a letter from their physicians. In many cases the mothers have come with them, and said, "If you give her this treatment we will sanction the marriage." I believe that if birth control clinics are established and properly run it will do away with a great deal of immorality, because it is going to allow young people to be married earlier and to take their time to have children. It will be a factor for morality and not immorality.
Q. Do you know the size of the families of legislators and judges who oppose this law?
A. At one time we did take a poll of their families and we found there was a certain percentage of them who were bachelors, and that not over two had more than five children, the others had small families.
Q. Why can't the state take charge of the larger families in the case of poorer people?
A. The state is already doing that, as well as private charities and philanthropic societies. That is what we do not want.
Q. If birth control was practiced many years ago, might not society have been deprived of great individuals, such as Lincoln, Washington, and others?
A. It is difficult to say, but assuming that we might have been deprived of these great individuals, I think we might also have been deprived of a large group of imbeciles, feeble-minded, and general mental incompetents, and we probably would have more great individuals because they would have had a chance to develop their individuality.
Q. How much cooperation do you receive from the Protestant clergy?
A. As individuals, I think a great deal. Beginning with Dean Inge of St. Paul's Cathedral, they have never ceased to stand behind and with us. In the Episcopal Church there has been a fine support, not officially, but from individuals, and also from the Methodists and various others. So far as the Unitarians are concerned, we have had it from the beginning.
Q. Does not the Catholic Church confuse abortion with conception?
A. I was under that impression for a long time, but I had it from Cardinal Hayes that they did not. I had a statement which was printed in the New York Times that Cardinal Hayes said that the Catholic Church did not confuse abortion with conception, that it understood well what the birth control movement was trying to do, and that it preferred abortion to birth control, because the soul that is aborted has started its journey to life and is sent back, while the prevention of conception denies that soul the right to start life and is a mortal sin; and it is the right and duty of all of us to make it possible for souls to have the glory of God in Heaven, etc. I asked Cardinal Hayes the question: why then he was living a celibate life and was not doing his duty.
Q. Don't you think that the hidden hand that instigated the raid on your clinic will not lie quiet but will continue trying to break up your work?
A. It is very possible they will try it, but we are going to be very alert.
Q. Will you tell us the physician of Massachusetts who was courageous enough to go about talking on birth control?
A. Dr. James F. Cooper.
Q. In your program, would you place restrictions on the productivity of men and women who were perfectly normal and where there was no handicap to the woman having as many children as she pleased?
A. In regard to a perfectly healthy couple that has adequate means, I would certainly place no restrictions on them. It is a question of what the individuals desire. There is no compulsion on our part where people are able to maintain the children they bring into the world.
Q. (Mrs. Sanger.) Doesn't our government know that birth control has been practiced for centuries, and if physicians would wake up couldn't they control the laws better in regard to it?
A. I had not known that it had been practiced for centuries. There have been infanticide, abortion, etc., but I had not known that the same kind of birth control that we practice has been practiced for centuries.
Q. (Mrs. Sanger.) Is it true that Dr. Cooper gave birth control information in Boston?
A. (By Mr. Skinner.) He said the other night that he had brought some fifteen hundred children of the North End into the world, and that it was there that he gained interest in the question of birth control. I do not know whether he has given definite information in clinics or in his private practice. I can not answer that personally.
(By Mrs. Sanger.) I know he did in his private practice, because in one of the medical societies in Chicago he brought some one hundred or one hundred and fifty cases he had followed.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project