Morality of Birth Control, Margaret Sanger
The following is a speech delivered on Nov. 18, 1921, at the Park Theatre in New York City by Margaret Sanger titled "The Morality of Birth Control."
The meeting tonight is a postponement of one which was to have taken place at
the Town Hall last Sunday evening. It was to be a culmination of a three day conference,
two of which were held at the Hotel Plaza, in discussing the Birth Control subject in its
various and manifold aspects. The one issue upon which there seems to be most uncertainty
and disagreement exists in the moral side of the subject of Birth Control. It seemed only
natural for us to call together scientists, educators, members of the medical profession
and the theologians of all denominations to ask their opinion upon this uncertain and
important phase of the controversy. Letters were sent to the most eminent men and
women in the world.
1. Is over-population a menace to the peace of the world?
2. Would the legal dissemination of scientific Birth Control information through the
medium of clinics by the medical profession be the most logical method of checking
the problem of over population?
3. Would knowledge of Birth Control change the moral attitude of men and women toward
the marriage bond or lower the moral standards of the youth of the country?
4. Do you believe that knowledge which enables parents to limit the families will make
for human happiness, and raise the moral, social and intellectua standards of population?
We sent such a letter not only to those who, we thought, might agree with us, but
we sent it also to our known opponents. Most of these people answered. Everyone
who answered did so with sincerity and courtesy, with the exception of one group
whose reply to this important question as demonstrated at the Town Hall last Sunday
evening was a disgrace to liberty-loving people, and to all traditions we hold dear in the
United States. I believed that the discussion of the moral issue was one which did not
solely belong to theologians and to scientists, but belonged to the people. And because
I believed that the people of this country may and can discuss this subject with dignity
and with intelligence I desired to bring them together, and to discuss it in the open.
When one speaks of moral, one refers to human conduct. This implies action of many kinds,
which in turn depends upon the mind and the brain. So that in speaking of morals one
must remember that there is a direct connection between morality and brain development.
Conduct is said to be action in pursuit of ends, and if this is so, then we must hold the
irresponsibility and recklessness in our action is immoral, while responsibility and
forethought put into action for the benefit of the individual and the race becomes
in the highest sense the finest kind of morality.
We know that every advance that woman has made in the last half century has been made
with opposition, all of which has been based upon the grounds of immorality. When women
fought for higher education, it was said that this would cause her to become immoral and
she would lose her place in the sanctity of the home. When women asked for the franchise
it was said that this would lower her standard of morals, that it was not fit that she should
meet with and mix with the members of the opposite sex, but we notice that there was
no objection to her meeting with the same members of the opposite sex when she went
The church has ever opposed the progress of woman on the ground that her freedom
would lead to immorality. We ask the church to have more confidence in women. We
ask the opponents of this movement to reverse the methods of the church, which aims
to keep women moral by keeping them in fear and in ignorance, and to inculcate into them
a higher and truer morality based upon knowledge. And ours is the morality of knowledge.
If we cannot trust woman with the knowledge of her own body, then I claim that two
thousand years of Christian teaching has proved to be a failure. We stand on the
principle that Birth Control should be available to every adult man and woman. We
believe that every adult man and woman should be taught the responsibility and the
right use of knowledge. We claim that woman should have the right over her own body
and to say if she shall or if she shall not be a mother, as she sees fit. We further claim that
the first right of a child is to be desired. While the second right is that it should be conceived
in love, and the third, that it should have a heritage of sound health.
Upon these principles the Birth Control movement in America stands. When it comes
to discussing the methods of Birth Control, that is far more difficult. There are laws in
this country which forbid the imparting of practical information to the mothers of the land.
We claim that every mother in this country, either sick or well, has the right to the best,
the safest, the most scientific information. This information should be disseminated
directly to the mothers through clinics by members of the medical profession, registered
nurses and registered midwives.
Our first step is to have the backing of the medical profession so that our laws may be
changed, so that motherhood may be the function of dignity and choice, rather than one
of ignorance and chance. Conscious control of offspring is now becoming the ideal and
the custom in all civilized countries. Those who oppose it claim that however desirable
it may be on economic or social grounds, it may be abused and the morals of the youth
of the country may be lowered. Such people should be reminded that there are two
points to be considered.
First, that such control is the inevitable advance in civilization. Every civilization involves
an increasing forethought for others, even for those yet unborn. The reckless abandonment
of the impulse of the moment and the careless regard for the consequences, is not morality.
The selfish gratification of temporary desire at the expense of suffering to lives that will
come may seem very beautiful to some, but it is not our conception of civilization,
or is it our concept of morality.
In the second place, it is not only inevitable, but it is right to control the size of the family
for by this control and adjustment we can raise the level and the standards of the human
race. While Nature’s way of reducing her numbers is controlled by disease, famine
and war, primitive man has achieved the same results by infanticide, exposure of infants,
the abandonment of children, and by abortion. But such ways of controlling population
is no longer possible for us.
We have attained high standards of life, and along the lines of science must we conduct
such control. We must begin farther back and control the beginnings of life. We must
control conception. This is a better method, it is a more civilized method, for it involves
not only greater forethought for others, but finally a higher sanction for the value of life itself.
Society is divided into three groups. Those intelligent and wealthy members of the upper
classes who have obtained knowledge of Birth Control and exercise it in regulating
the size of their families. They have already benefited by this knowledge, and are today
considered the most respectable and moral members of the community. They have only
children when they desire, and all society points to them as types that should perpetuate
their kind. The second group is equally intelligent and responsible. They desire to control
the size of their families, but are unable to obtain knowledge or to put such available
knowledge into practice.
The third are those irresponsible and reckless ones having little regard for the consequence
of their acts, or whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their
numbers. Many of this group are diseased, feeble-minded, and are of the pauper element
dependent entirely upon the normal and fit members of society for their support. There
is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be
stopped. For if they are not able to support and care for themselves, they should certainly
not be allowed to bring offspring into this world for others to look after. We do not believe
that filling the earth with misery, poverty and disease is moral. And it is our desire and
intention to carry on our crusade until the perpetuation of such conditions has ceased.
We desire to stop at its source the disease, poverty and feeble-mindedness and insanity
which exist today, for these lower the standards of civilization and make for race deterioration.
We know that the masses of people are growing wiser and are using their own minds to
decide their individual conduct. The more people of this kind we have, the less immorality
shall exist. For the more responsible people grow, the higher do they and shall they
attain real morality.
Sanger, Margaret. "The Morality of Birth Control." Meeting, 18 November 1921. Park Theatre, New York City. Gos.sbc.edu. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.
When Sanger references "suffering to lives that will come" (lines 72-73) she means