Margaret Sanger, "Birth Control in America," Jul 1915.
Published Article. Source: Freedom: A Journal of Anarchist Communism, 29:315, July 1915, p. 51 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm C16:80 .
There appears to be a movement on foot at present in America which if successful will be the first vital step toward the overthrow of Puritanism, as well as the slow but certain downfall of Comstockery in that country. It is the Birth Control movement, and it has grown so rapidly in favor and strength during the past few months that in New York City alone there are two separate Birth Control Leagues--one consisting of members of the medical profession, and the other mainly of feminists and people of feminist sympathies.
It is now over forty years since there were placed on the Statute Book of the United States Government laws rushed through an uproarious and hurried Congress in the last hour of March 3 (new Administrations assume duties March 4), known as the "Comstock Laws," which prohibited any matter passing through the mails which, in the opinion of Anthony Comstock, was "obscene." This implied a religious as well as moral opinion.
Robert G. Ingersoll and his followers arose at once to strike a deadly blow at the religious part of the law, and succeeded so well that a few years later the law was modified, and religious prejudice was removed. Let it be understood that it was not removed from the Statute Book until after there was no use for it. Ingersoll's propaganda against the Church and religion was so effective and widespread that by direct action and education, he undermined the Church at its very foundation, and left the stupid law hanging in Washington like the dried shell of a tortoise. When there was no use or no further interest in the law, the lawmakers secretly removed that portion of it. But they tightened their grip harder than ever on the moral side of it, and in case the word "obscene" should be too vague, they stipulated its meaning, and combined the causing of abortion and the prevention of conception under one title, "obscene," and threatened five years' imprisonment and a five-thousand dollar fine for any one who was found guilty of this offense. The consequence has been that though many have broken it by sending through the mail papers, magazines, etc., with nude figures in their pages, and have been prosecuted for "obscenity," only one besides myself has openly defied this outrageous law on the prevention of conception. This was Dr. Elliott, an honored member of the medical profession, who, seeing the suffering of poor and miserable women, stated he would defy the law and give out this information to those who needed it. A few days later he received two letters from different towns asking for his advice--one writer saying she was the mother of nine children and had a syphilitic husband, the other saying she had ten children and a husband out of work through illness. Dr. Elliott sent the necessary information to both writers. The following week he was arrested, dragged off to jail, and confronted by a woman, a Comstock spy, as the one who had written to him in both cases. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to five years in the Leavenworth Penitentiary for each letter, and a ten-thousand dollar fine. He got the limit of the law. He served six years, but through some agitation recently aroused, he has been "pardoned," and allowed to go free.
Broken in health and spirit, with his professional standing practically gone, his case has stood like a giant rock for the authorities, and held the medical profession and others alike at bay.
I had no desire to become a martyred Dr. Elliott, but I harbored a burning desire to undermine that law, not by waiting to vote it out of existence, but by crushing it out by action, for direct action will bring results that a generation of political action could never do.
In March, 1914, I brought out a monthly paper, the Woman Rebel, which had on its banner, "No Gods, No Masters," and had for its motto, "Working women, build up within yourselves a conscious fighting character against all things which enslave you." It claimed that women's first right is over her own body, to be a mother or not as she saw fit; but such rights involved a knowledge of the means to prevent conception. The columns were thrown open for opinions, and letters poured in thick and fast from all over America. Seven out of nine issues were suppressed and confiscated by the Government, and in August the Federal grand jury returned a verdict against me of three indictments on twelve counts, or a liability of twelve years' imprisonment. But I had no intention to undergo imprisonment for simply discussing a subject. There was already printed, and waiting in storage in various parts of the United States, a pamphlet giving direct information on family limitation. The authorities heard of this, and were anxious to push my trial on the pending indictment, and hoped to frighten or discourage me from doing any further work on the subject. The trial came up in October, and I asked for a postponement to prepare my case. The Judge refused it, saying I had had time enough to prepare it. I then took my own postponement, and left for Europe. Three days later there were one hundred thousand pamphlets on family limitation passing through the mails into the various industrial sections of the country.
The fact that I am a middle-aged, motherly, harmless-looking person, led the Judge to allow me to go without bail, so that my leaving the country made the authorities quite furious. They cleverly laid a trap by sending a man calling himself a "comrade" to Mr. Sanger's studio. This man showed great interest in my work, and after a second call of friendly interest got Mr. Sanger to give him one of the pamphlets on "Family Limitation." He left the studio, and in a few minutes returned with Anthony Comstock, who had a warrant for Mr. Sanger's arrest, and a warrant to search his premises, which was done.
They then tried to induce him to tell of my whereabouts and my plans, on the promise of leniency; failing that, he was taken to jail and locked up until bail could be found for him. His case is still pending. The Free Speech League has taken it up, and are trying to get it tried before a jury. It will no doubt be held over until the October Court opens. A few weeks following Mr. Sanger's arrest, some person or persons entered his studio, and a box of private letters written to him by me from Europe were mysteriously missing.
In the meantime a tremendous indignation swept the country at Mr. Sanger's arrest, and brought with it an overwhelming interest in the subject of birth control. At last the great conspiracy of silence on this subject was broken, and the capitalist press took it up from all sides. One conservative daily has offered a prize of £5 for the best letter on the subject of family limitation.
As I near the conclusion of the work which I came to Europe to do, the thought naturally comes to me, "Shall I return to America, and stand trial for these indictments?" We who know the State and its machinery, know that it is not built upon reason, or justice, or upon a desire for human welfare. We know it maintains its hold upon us by force, and for me to return and expect to reason with a Government which knows no reason, seems a childlike act.
On the other hand, there is the danger of this movement being transferred from the control of the State to the control of the medical profession, which in reality is only an exchange of high priests--another Church which the workers must pass through with bended knees before they can get to the knowledge that rightly belongs to them. It is my desire that such knowledge should be available to every adult man and woman, but especially to the working men and women.
There have been so many letters come to me these last few weeks urging my return, and requesting me to take up the working class side of the fight, and fight the case against a growing tendency of class liberty and class privilege, that I have decided to return to America in the latter part of the summer, and stand my trial.
I am not fooling myself by thinking that the same magazines and press which are advocating the idea of birth control by legal means are going to stand behind any one who defied and deliberately broke a sacred law and advocated it by direct means. I know too well the methods of the cowardly press, and expect little from them. But in a country where there is the latest scientific invention, and most up-to-date machinery, if there exists by its side laws which execute ideals, and burn at the stake those who dare to speak and act for freedom, then it is time such places were exposed, and their much-boasted freedom and liberty challenged.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project