Margaret Sanger, "Fewer and Better Babies," Jan 1926.
Published Article. Source: Holland Magazine, Jan. 1926, pp. 7, 64, 67 .
For incomplete typed draft versions, see S71:42 and S71:45 and S71:58.
We are becoming a nation of business women as well as business men. No--I don’t mean merely those women who are carving careers for themselves in the professional world, who are succeeding as shopkeepers, as artists, as doctors, as decorators, or as social workers. I mean the humble "housewife" as well. Housekeeping nowadays has been put on a business basis; and not even the most incorrigible sentimentalist regrets the passing of the day when "woman’s work was never done." To-day American women revel in the discipline of housekeeping on the budget system. They delight in businesslike efficiency in the home. They have declared war on waste, dirt, and slovenliness. They have gained more freedom, more comfort and more happiness.
And so a new generation of young American wives, a vast majority of whom have business experience before marriage, is beginning to approach the central problem in life--that of motherhood--in a new manner. In a word, these women are trying to put the business of bearing babies on a basis of intelligent efficiency.
In this age of motor cars, aeroplanes, and radio, American women are refusing to conduct the most important businesses in life as it was conducted in the cave-dwelling period--which was by leaving the whole problem to chance!
Like all important changes in civilization, this attempt to put the all-important profession of motherhood on a business basis has been denounced and derided. It has come as a shock to the older generation of sentimentalists, who were taught to close eyes, shut ears, and to never open mouths in public or in private concerning fundamental facts about parenthood. Such folk are really the descendants of Martin Luther, who called to the bedside of a woman dying in childbirth is reported to have said: "If the woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her only die from bearing. She is there to do it."
To-day we realize that this attitude is bad manners, worse morality, and thoughtlessly wasteful of the most precious possessions in the treasury of our vast natural resources--mother-power and child-life. To courageous, ambitious, young husbands and wives to-day, parenthood is a problem that cannot be left to chance. Childbearing is too costly a venture--both in precious lives and in money, to be indulged in carelessly, incessantly, continuously, without thought of the lives of the mother and the child.
No gallant, chivalrous, sane-minded husband to-day would willingly ask his wife to descend into the valley of the shadow of death without taking every precaution for the health and well-being of his beloved and the new arrival. But, as Ida Albright recently pointed out in the Atlantic Monthly, in an article entitled “The High Cost of Babies,” a proper confinement either in a hospital or at home runs ordinarily into hundreds of dollars, and very often into thousands.
A generation or so ago, it cost approximately ten dollars apiece to bring babies into this world. But nowadays because we women are placing an even higher value on child-life and mother-life and insist that our children shall have a proper start, and that mothers shall not be drained of vitality and happiness by incessant childbearing, we are insisting more on quality and less on quantity. And however shocking it strikes the lingering sentimentalists of an older generation, and despite the fulminations and protests of certain gentlemen who are not concerned in the hazards of childbearing most intelligent American women are accepting the theory and practice of Birth Control.
If Birth Control aims for fewer children per family, it means healthier, stronger, happier babies.
Birth Control means conservation of mother-power and child-life.
Fundamentally, Birth Control aims for the creation of a race of thoroughbreds. To create this race of well-born generations, we insist that the tested principles of sound agriculture and breeding are directly applicable to the human race, no less than to plants and animals.
This does not mean that husbands and wives will be reduced to the servility of domestic animals. It means that they shall be induced to exercise more and more intelligence, self-discipline and guidance of their own procreative powers. If means that they are given a practical means by which all well-born children, the stalwart, sturdy, beautiful citizens of our America of tomorrow, may be conceived in love, born of the parent’s conscious desires, and begotten under conditions which insure the first right of every human being brought into this world--the heritage of health.
Putting childbearing on a sound business basis--studying it, examining it, analyzing it, keeping the books of motherhood and starting budgets for babies, computing the cost of “overhead” and seeking to cut down waste and inefficiency--all this, I claim, does not mean that we mothers of the present generation are cold-blooded. It does not mean that we love babies less. It means that we love them more. We, too, can go into ecstasies over adorable “rosebuds”--particularly our own. But we modern mothers--and I have had some twenty years experience in this “baby business”--realize that we are not merely producing “better babies,” but the men and women of to-morrow--the Americans upon whom the whole future of our civilization depends. Is it anything to wonder at, then, that the “business” mother to-day is insisting in her whole particularly inalienable field, on “safety first” in motherhood? Is it not better for all concerned, the security of marriage itself, the health and economic well-being of the family, and the start in life of our young Americans in the making, that persons should stop, look and listen?
Of all sides, if we take trouble to use our eyes, we are confronted with the spectacle of motherhood and childhood wrecked and ruined, state and federal governments burdened with the support of the victims of reckless and irresponsible parenthood.
Since we are interested in babies and childbearing from the point of view of business, it may be well to look into the costs of quantity production as opposed to quality production of children and to find out if we can, which is in the long run more wasteful in human life, and because it is more wasteful, therefore immoral.
On this point we have the evidence of impartial facts and figures. The Children’s Bureau of the United States Department of Labor has just completed a quiet and thorough investigation of the real cause of the deaths of young babies--infants who had not attained the age of one year. This report, which ought to be read by every American citizen, is easily obtained. It deals with the “causal” factors of infant mortality.
Government investigators probed in to the intimate circumstances surrounding the deaths of no fewer than twenty-three thousand babies who died for one reason or another during the first twelve months of their sorry efforts to gain a foothold in this inhospitable old world of ours. The Government investigation was carried on with admirable thoroughness and impartiality in no less than eight typical cities, and the results, covering so wide a field, may be accepted as applicable to all cases since similar investigations carried on in Great Britain and other countries produced the same conclusions.
One of the most important facts brought out is that the death rate for infants is highest when they are born at short intervals.
It was shown that a four-year interval between births is safest for the survival of babies.
It was shown that the larger the family the fewer chances had each succeeding baby to survive the ordeals of its first year.
It was found that the infant death rate increases with the increase in the amount of congestion and overcrowding in the home. It is two and one-half times as great in families with two or more persons to the room than in those which average less than one person a room.
Where the father’s wage is low the infant mortality rate is high. Where the father’s income is relatively high the death rate for babies is low. In other words: Poverty is the great enemy of baby life. Poverty means lack of proper food, lack of hygienic sanitation. Poverty means an overcrowded house. Poverty means more babies than the mother can properly look after and more than the harassed father can support. But here we must recognize another curious factor.
The bulk of the wealthy, the well-to-do, the educated and self-supporting classes in practically every civilized state now limit their families by the beneficent instrument of Birth Control. The vital statistics demonstrate this interesting fact. On the other hand, the poverty-stricken, the improvident, the criminal, the mentally and physically defective, are reckless and irresponsible. They exercise no control over their procreative faculties and incessantly flood society with numerous weakly defective and delinquent offspring.
Many such cases have been brought to my attention. Undoubtedly many of my readers have been asked to help such “needy cases,” and yet charity only seems to aggravate the situation. I remember with a shudder the poignant case of an epileptic mother recently brought to my notice. The poor woman had brought no less than sixteen children into the world. The family was, of course, distressingly poor. The father was blind. Sixteen children, and only three of these escaped the more disastrous aspects of their hereditary blight. A volume might be written on the disorders of this ill-fated family, showing how poverty, disease defect ally themselves with crime, delinquency, and feeble-mindedness.
Every year, thousands of letters are sent to me by overburdened mothers asking for aid to relieve them from the incessant travail of too frequent childbearing. From every state in the Union I receive these heartrending, inarticulate appeals of tortured souls crushed beneath the blind forces of cruelly prolific nature. To any one of imaginative and compassionate interest in womankind these letters represent a sort of Greek chorus of the martyred mothers of the world. Only the selfish and calloused could close their ears to these inarticulate despairing cries. And it is the troubled distant sound of these voices that spurs us on in our fight for the liberation of motherhood.
I have received over one hundred and fifty thousand letters in the last two years. They are not pleasant to read but they present in a far more convincing and poignant fashion than cold statistics the real problem we, as a nation, face and exert all our intelligence and skill to solve.
The efforts of American society to deal with the defective and delinquent classes, through charity and institutional care, are absolutely futile in curing this racial canker which is a national disgrace.
One must live in an vast overcrowded city like New York to sense the tragedy of those wasted lives, these poor blighted babies and children, of whom it could be truthfully said--said in the spirit of utmost compassion--“It had been good for them if they had not been born.” Not only good for them, but good for the normal children upon whom they will at maturity become a heavy burden, and good for the future unfolding of American civilization.
The efforts to meet the problem these blighted lives present has been met by organized charity and sentimentality. But the warm heart of America needs the balance of a cool head. When I think of the millions--nay, billions--of dollars annually spent in public and private charities, and of the failure of philanthropies to effect a cure. I am always reminded of the words of Francis Thompson: “Before me stretched an immense, soundless, bitter ocean. On its shore stood a string of benevolent children, equipped with sugar bowls. What were they doing? They were throwing lumps of sugar into the sea to sweeten the waves.”
I think of that sea of humanity, a sea concealing in its dark depths the inarticulate smothered suffering of women and children, of women suffering in the endless torture of undesired childbearing, and unwanted blighted children whose little lives are soon snuffed out or who live wanly in overcrowded slums with insufficient elbow room for the movements of their stunted bodies, and with no chance of sunlight and fresh air and solitude for the essential development of body and soul. Thousands of them are condemned at a pitiably early age to become child laborers and to grow up to lead stunted and meager lives.
But it is not along this appalling waste of infant and child-life that makes uncontrolled procreation a costly extravagance. Consider for a moment the sacrifice of life and health among the mothers. Motherhood, we admit, is a business--the most important business, one is tempted to claim, on the face of the earth, for it involves not only the past and the present, but the whole future of our civilization.But it is not along this appalling waste of infant and child-life that makes uncontrolled procreation a costly extravagance. Consider for a moment the sacrifice of life and health among the mothers. Motherhood, we admit, is a business--the most important business, one is tempted to claim, on the face of the earth, for it involves not only the past and the present, but the whole future of our civilization.
Motherhood is a hazardous profession. It involves tremendous risks. Health and strength are essential to its success. Scientific investigators insist that if the period of recuperation is cut short, if the mother is forced, too soon after the birth of one baby to undertake immediately the function of maternity. both the new-born baby and the mite of humanity still in the formative stage, suffer from malnutrition and are often permanently stunted.
Let us not forget that while each parent gives fifty percent of the germ plasm, the mother nurtures the developing fetus for nine months. During this all-important period more damage may be done to the individual than at any time after birth. Scientist assure that happy, healthful, peaceful surroundings are absolutely essential for pregnant women, if we desire the citizens of the next generation to begin life with a fair start. Emotionally upset and unhappy women, on the verge of physical and mental breakdown, often give birth to defective children. Such children become burdens, often for life, on the community. Slave motherhood is thus a costly extravagance, not only for the individuals concerned, but for the nation at large.
The bill we pay for our hypocritical prudish refusal to face these facts runs into billions!
Federal and state laws prohibit the dissemination of education concerning the basic facts of parental prudence and intelligent discipline of protective instincts. And yet American citizens are forced every year to pay billions of dollars for the maintenance of the victims of irresponsible parenthood. More than one-quarter of the total incomes of our states is expended upon the upkeep of asylums, prisons, hospitals, poorhouses, and such institutions for the care of the defective and delinquent. According to statistics gathered by the Federal Children’s Bureau, we as a nation are losing more mothers to childbirth to-day than we did ten years ago. Despite two years’ work in education under the federal act for the protection of maternity, and seven years’ progress in local public health work, the maternal mortality rate has steadily and substantially increased. Almost every year in one of the thirty-one states of the birth registration area there is an increasing number of fatalities due to the hazards of maternity. The trend is steadily upward. Instead of making motherhood safe, as Professor Edward M. East of Harvard asserts, it is constantly growing more dangerous.
And yet we allow our mothers to risk their lives in this way not once or twice or three times in a lifetime, but again, and again by innumerable pregnancies year after year.
Such, briefly, is the “overhead” expense in this business of bearing babies. Such is the woeful waste to our great nation, the extravagant throwing away of precious mother-power and child-life of the policy of leaving the most important task of human life to chance and instinct.
No business in the world, whether it be farming of stock-breeding, or fruit-growing, or merchandising or keeping a house or a store, could be conducted with this blind carelessness without driving the corporation into bankruptcy and disaster.
Would the cattleman or stock-breeder dare breed from diseased stock? Would the gardener or farmer pay no attention to the kind of seeds he planted, or sentimentalize about the soil in which he planted them, without first assuring himself that it was nutritious? Would he overcrowd them in planting and sow them so that they would grow up stunted and overcrowded, and never possibly attain their full maturity? Of course not!
As a nation we have made tremendous strides in agriculture, in industry, in machinery. We have state commissions for controlling the gypsy moth or boll weevil. We spent millions in combating foot-and-mouth disease among livestock. We pass stringent state and federal laws to protect wild game and shell fish. We have a huge movement to protect forests and conserve water power, and every day the awakening conviction that we must as a world-community protect our vast natural resources, becomes stronger and stronger.
And yet, towards the conservation of our two greatest and most important “natural resources”--mother-power and child-life--figures prove that these United States of America are becoming less and less careful. We are every year losing more mothers in childbirth. And while the infant mortality rate may be decreasing, we are still confronted by the widespread evils of Child Labor and a vastly increasing problem of juvenile delinquency.
It is high time that we begin, with all the energy and efficiency at our command, to cultivate our human garden, to apply the lessons we have learned in business and agriculture to our human livestock. At the end of his long career at his working his beneficent miracles for the good of America and humanity at large, Luther Burbank, the wonder worker of plant life, is driven to the conclusion that something must be done immediately to save humanity from recklessly breeding itself to destruction. “America.” said this genius recently, “is like a garden in which the gardener pays no attention to the weeds. . . .We have multiplied without scientific control, and to-day our criminals are reproducing their kind faster than any other class in the nation. Our criminals are our weeds, and weeds breed fast and are intensely hardy. They must be eliminated. . . . Nature eliminates the weeds, but we turn them into parasites and allow them to reproduce.”
Here then, is the situation: As I have said, and as everyone will agree, the bulk of the wealthy, educated, and intellectual classes--practically all the college-bred and business-bred representatives of the rising generation--are now using contraceptive methods to control the size of their families and to insure for their children a proper start in life. Nevertheless the poor, irresponsible, more improvident classes are adding to the financial burden of every American citizen and taxpayer, by flooding society with increasing numbers of defective children.
If the birth rate of the “fit” is decreasing, and the birth rate of the “unfit” is increasing, will not the latter soon dominate?
Here is one of the great problems America must face and solve.
Is Birth Control an immoral, unnatural practice which is driving this country to destruction, as our enemies assert, or is it an avenue of racial salvation? How can education in Birth Control be brought to those who need it most? These questions I shall seek to answer in my next article.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project