Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control--The Fundamental Freedom," 30 December, 1920.
The article was originally published in "the National Suffragist". For an incomplete version, see Margaret Sanger Microfilm C16:146.
I have just returned from Europe having spent six months in England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany. I return more convinced than ever before of the outstanding importance to women and to the world of the conscious, voluntary control of the birth rate.
[two words torn] conditions, the form of [two words torn] customs and traditions, [one word torn] in the countries I have just visited but in all of them one thing is evident: a tremendous movement of women toward intellectual and spiritual freedom. In none of these countries has this movement reached its goal, no matter what the economic structure. In Russia, where the workers claim to have won political and economic freedom, women find themselves according to good authority, unable to participate fully in the advantages of the new order, because they do not control the function of maternity. There is no subject about which the women of Russia more urgently seek information today than of birth control. The same thing is true of women of Germany, England and France.
The situation in Germany is peculiarly appalling. In spite of the last five years' desperate struggle and the lack of necessities of all kinds still existing, women have, at the command of the state, continued to bear large families. Babies have been born only to die, or to lead at best a pitiable half-existence (while authority has frowned upon the movement to prevent conception and to control birth).
I saw more than ten thousand children in Germany, hundreds of whom could hardly hold up their heads and many more who, at the age of three or four years, could not walk or use their legs.
One Saturday I visited the home of a family in Munich where the father was unemployed and the family, wife and ten children under twelve years, were subsisting upon an unemployment dole worth, in our money, about one dollar a week. The food in the house had given out on Friday and the next payment was not due until Monday.
When I arrived one child was gnawing at her mother's breast though her milk had long been exhausted, while another baby lay on the bed gnawing painfully, instead of food, a tiny thumb. The father had gone to the woods in a desperate attempt to find mushrooms on which they might exist over Sunday. Yet the insane cry is still--more children!
It is the women of Germany who are, and have been the worst sufferers from the evils of war and the blockade. It is these same women through whom permanent alleviation to Germany will come. Already the women of Munich and southern Germany are awake to the horrors of their situation and they are leading in the first strike of its kind - - the most fundamental of all strikes - - a birth strike. Going from door to door these women are calling upon their fellow women to cease to bear children until their babies shall be assured the chance for a decent life.
The women of northern Germany have gone still further and are backing a bill before the German Reischstag which would legalize abortion. To many of us this is a most shocking proposal, and one that would in any other country be in no way justifiable but the women of Germany claim that as long as the blockade exists, which they consider still to be the case because of the unfavorable rate of exchange and other factors, they cannot obtain the material for hygienic cleanliness and that therefore they are entitled to make use of this means of limiting the family.
Strange to say, there are many among the medical profession of Germany who favor the abortion bill while opposing the prevention of conception. I asked one of the leading gynecologists there why he took this stand, and his reply was significant. "I am willing," he said, "to help check our population during this period of intense struggle, but merely as a temporary expedient. Abortion is in the hands of the medical profession and therefore can be controlled. To give women the knowledge of birth control, would be to place in their hands dangerous power, power which could not be recalled when conditions improve."
Leaving Germany, I traveled through Holland, where I found conditions by far the best of any country in the world, not excluding America. In Holland the laws of free press and free speech have enabled women to obtain birth control information and to attend medical clinics for expert advice on this question. As a result Dutch women participate in public activities at the same time have a normal family life. That working woman is encouraged to marry early the man of her choice and not to have a family until the child may come into a home prepared for it.
What is the result? While the birth rate of Holland has gone down the death rate has also been lowered and the population increased in a ratio which does not tax the country's resources. Had this little country not limited its birth rate for the past twenty-five years it would have been so involved that it must have lost its national existence in the turmoil of the war. As it was, the nation has, unlike most of the other warring countries, held its own through the most crucial period of its national life. Freedom of the press and of speech has been preserved. Standards of health have been improved. Conditions are today more nearly normal there than in any other European countries and today it is illegal not only to give birth control information through clinics, or through the mails, but even to discuss anything which would tend to sanction or encourage a reduction of the birth rate.
In England, where I lectured to working women on the subject of birth control, I found everywhere intense interest. There are no laws in England preventing the working woman from obtaining birth control information. The obstacle to its widespread has heretofore been a peculiar prejudice on the part of the workers themselves. This feeling may be traced back to the time of Malthus who, on the basis of his theory that poverty was caused by prolific breeding, advocated continence until a late marriage and then family limitation through abstinence. This proposal of Malthus was opposed by the workers who approved the Marxian conception of poverty as the result of the capitalist system rather than of an excess population. The economic after-the-war conditions coupled with the strong woman's movement in England, have gone far to break down this prejudice of the workers and even the communists attended my meetings in large numbers.
News of a similar keen interest in birth control in Asiatic countries is continually reaching me. In India, the movement has already assumed dimensions which make it of national importance, and the Japanese government has sent officials here to study the subject, recognizing that it is for that over-crowded island empire a choice between birth control or a war of aggression within thirty years.
In the United States, our movement struggles under the enormous handicap of state laws which place scientific birth control information in the category of the obscene and punish by $1,000 fine or a year in prison the giving of oral or written information on the subject, in addition to the federal law which imposes a $5,000 fine and five years in prison for sending such information through the mails. Until these laws are repealed, it is impossible to establish clinics or to give such information in any way to the thousands of women clamoring for it, without risking a prison sentence. Thirty-five women have so far gone to jail in their efforts to perform this service for their fellow women.
It is evident therefore that the movement is already an international one, as the population question must necessarily be. Some of the ablest statesmen and economists of Europe are now awake to the tremendous significance of over-breeding and to its relation to the great world evils of child labor, unemployment, poverty and war. Until it is scientifically and openly understood, they contend, there can never be a real league of nations.
The time is now ripe, therefore for the women of all nations to demand the right of conscious voluntary control of the birth rate through the prevention of conception and to insist upon the placing in their hands of the best scientific knowledge on this subject.
Fortunately the women of the world are now stepping into government as fully enfranchised citizens, with the power to demand their rights. A few of us, a small handful in fact, have been holding the fort until women had the vote and their energies could be released to attack this tremendous subject. If, in our own country, one-tenth of the energy which has been used to win the franchise would be used to attack the fossilized birth control laws on the statute books in would it would only be a few years until the women of the United States would have the fundamental freedom which underlies all others, power to control their own bodies.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project