Margaret Sanger,
DEBATE ON BIRTH CONTROL
1921

[This version is abridged. For the full version, click here.]

1
Mrs. Sanger: Mr. Chairman, and ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Russell and I seem to agree on some of the points of this argument at least, but as usual with most opponents of birth control, they have absolutely no intelligent argument. (Laughter.) They always barricade themselves behind the Bible or the terrible vengeance of an offended nature. That is exactly what Mr. Russell is doing now.
2
Now, friends, I want to say let us get down to fundamental principles. Let us get together and look at life the way it is now, not as it might have been had Nature acted thus and so, not as it might be had God done thus and so, but as we find ousselves [sic.] today. We have a few principles of life by which we must live, and I claim that everyone of us has a right to health, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness. I say furthermore that birth control is an absolutely essential factor in our living and having [13] those three principles of happiness. (Applause.)
3
By birth control, I mean a voluntary, conscious control of the birth rate by means that prevent conception--scientific means that prevent conception. I don't mean birth control by abstinence or by continence or anything except the thing that agrees with most of us, and as we will develop later on, most of us are glad that there are means of science at the present time that there are not injurious, not harmful, and all conception can be avoided.
4
Now let us look upon life as it really is, and we see society today is divided distinctly into two groups: those who use the means of birth control and those who do not.
5
On the one side we find those who do, use means in controlling birth. What have they? They are the people who bring to birth few children. They are the people who have all the happiness, who have wealth and the leisure for culture and mental and spiritual development. They are people who rear their children to manhood and womanhood and who fill the universities and the colleges with their progeny. Nature has seemed to be very kind to that group of people (Laughter.) [14]
6
On the other hand we have the group who have large families and have for generations perpetuated large families, and I know from my work among these people that the great percentage of these people that are brought into the world in poverty and misery have been unwanted. I know that most of these people are just as desirous to have means to control birth as the women of wealth. I know she tries desperately to obtain the information, not for selfish purposes, but for her own benefit and for that of her children. In this group, what do we have? We have poverty, misery, disease, overcrowding congestion, child labor, infant mortality, maternal mortality, all the evils which today are grouped in the crowd where there are large families of unwanted and undesired children.
7
Take the first one and let us see how these mothers feel. I claim that a woman, whether she is rich or poor, has a right to be a mother or not when she feels herself fit to be so. She has just as much right not to be a mother as she has to be a mother. It is just as right and as moral for people to talk of small families and to demand them as to want large families. It is just as moral. [15]
8
If we let, as we are supposed to do, nature take her course, we will say that we know that any woman from the age of puberty until the age of the period of menopause that that woman could have anywhere from 15 to 20 children in her lifetime, and it will only take one relationship between man and woman to give her one a year to give her that large family. Let us not forget that.
***
10
The only weapon that women have and the most uncivilized weapon that they have to use if they will not submit to having children every year and a half, the weapon they use is abortion. We know how detrimental abortion is to the physical side as well as to the psychic side of woman's life, and yet there are in this nation, because of these generalities and opinions that are here before us, that are stopping the tide of progress, we have more than one million women with abortions performed on them each year.
***
14
We speak of the rights of the unborn. I say that it is time to speak of those who are already born. I also say and know that the infant death rate is affected tremendously by those who arrive last. The first child that comes--the first or second or third children who arrive in a family, have a far better chance than those who arrive later.
***
17
Most of us know this. We know something about the actual conditions of life as it is among us. In some of the factories of Lowell and Fall River, Mass., it was found that of the children who work and toil there, under ten years of age, that 85 percent of them come from families [22] of eight--their mothers have given birth to eight children--and we find in the south very much the same thing, excepting a higher percentage of 90 to 93 percent of the children there.
18
That is not the only thing. We have conditions again that are more disastrous to the race than child labor or infant mortality, and that is the transmission of the venereal diseases to the race that is to come.
19
We know that the mothers and fathers of today produce the race of tomorrow, and know that unless we have a clean child and a clean stream of blood pouring through that child that the race of tomorrow is a doomed foregone conclusion. We know, too, that out of this terrible scourge of disease that we have 90 percent of the insanity in this country, due to syphilis. Anyone who is dealing with fundamentals would know that these people should use means to protect themselves against having children. They should absolutely in due regard to themselves, to their children and to the race, not allow a child to be born while that disease is running riot in the system, and then we have [23] that terrible consequence which is insanity.
***
24
You can't get away from it, my friend. Large families and poverty and misery go hand in hand. Now what do we try to do for all these conditions? How do we look out upon them? We are in a track. Motherhood has been tracked. We find that most of the social agencies of the country are trying to legislate these things out of existence. That is all. They run off to Albany and to Washington and they make eight-hour laws for women in industry, but they never think of the poor mother in the home who might have eight hours. Can you think of the mother in the home with eight hours? She has to go out of the home, out into industry to be protected by the law. Do you realize that mothers and women never have a night's rest from the time that they are pregnant, some of them until the door of nature closes their maternal functions? They never know what it is to have one whole night's rest. They are up nights with babies. Is this freedom or liberty? Hasn't she a right to herself--hasn't she a duty to herself to say [26] when and under what conditions she shall be a mother?
***
26
Also our child labor--we make laws in Washington against child labor, hoping we will wipe that out of existence. For 50 years they have been trying to wipe child labor off the books in the United States, but they have not succeeded and they will never succeed until they establish birth control clinics in those districts where these women are, where they put in birth control clinics, like they have in Holland--in every industrial section in the United [27] States where women can come to trained nurses and physicians and get from them scientific information whereby they may control birth.
***
28
Now Mr. Russell has said some things that are very interesting to me. He tells us that we cannot have pleasure without pain. It is a man who is speaking. (Laughter and applause.) [28] It is very peculiar that Nature only works on the one side of the human family when it comes to that law. She applies all the pain to the woman. It is absurd--a perfectly absurd argument in the face of rational intelligence (applause) to talk about marriage being for one purpose.
29
Now I claim--and I differ with Mr. Russell on that--I claim that the sex relationship has distinctly two functions. It has its love function and it has its maternal and paternal function. One is quite independent of the other, and one is just as moral as the other, and if it were not so, then the laws of this country ought to divorce the woman who is not able to have children. Absolutely! And we know it does not. We know that the time the children are created that there is not 1 percent of humanity that is born or created with that thought in mind. Very few people think at the time of creation that they are going to create. Most of us are brought into the world by accident and that is exactly what birth control is going to change. That is going to make humanity a conscious and voluntary thing.
30
When we talk of race suicide, it would take almost a whole afternoon to tell you how futile that argument [29] is. We know perfectly well, those of us who have studied the question that in those countries where birth control knowledge has been at the disposal of the people that, although the birth rate has gone down, that the death rate has also gone down. Consequently the population has been accelerated and there has been a better population because it has been a better and healthier population.
31
If Mr. Russell wants to talk about the race and does not want race suicide he had better come over quickly to the ranks of birth control. (Applause.)

Source: Debate on Birth Control: Margaret Sanger and Winter Russell (Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Co., 1921), 12-29. paragraph numbers have been added, and the original pagination appears in brackets.

History Tools Home Historical Sources Handout Library About Search