Margaret Sanger was religiously devoted to birth control. Apart from her children, we might say it was the only thing she truly cared about. She traded out husbands, lovers, and political ideologies, but her commitment to birth control was unwavering. “It [is] my religion,” she wrote to a friend in 1928.1 Each new day was for Margaret Sanger the opportunity to create “another center of influence from which the gospel of voluntary motherhood (could) spread.”2 And she was a relentless evangelist.
On the day that Margaret Sanger told her first husband she was leaving him, she mused in her diary about some of the other institutions she had left behind—the Church, Socialism, and the bourgeoisie.3 She’d abandoned them all in disillusionment, transferring her hopes and dreams to another savior. Sanger’s reverence for birth control was matched only by her contempt for unbounded fertility. “The most serious evil of our times,” Sanger wrote, “is that of encouraging the bringing into the world of large families.”4 When Planned Parenthood, the organization she’d founded, started “helping stupid neurotic women to get pregnant,” she would abandon it too.5
Sanger’s fanatical devotion to birth control was anchored on the unswerving conviction that it held the answer to all of society’s ills—including abortion. “If the laws against imparting knowledge of scientific birth control were repealed,” Sanger wrote in 1920, “nearly all of the [one or two million] women who undergo abortions in the United States each year would escape the agony of the surgeon's instruments.”6 This, of course, has not been the case. Sanger’s insistence that the mere knowledge of birth control would eliminate abortion has not been remotely realized, but abortion was only one of the vices birth control was promised to cure.
In the foreword to Sanger’s book Woman and the New Race, Havelock Ellis wrote, “It is in the deliberate restraint and measurement of human production that the fundamental problems of the family, the nation, the whole brotherhood of mankind find their solution.”7 Among other things, Sanger maintained that birth control would eliminate war, crime, poverty, ignorance, unemployment, famine, family discord, prostitution, disease, and mental instability. “Birth control is the means by which woman attains basic freedom,” Sanger wrote, and “it is the means by which she must and will uproot the evil she has wrought through her submission.“8 What was the evil that woman’s submission had wrought? According to Sanger, it was reckless breeding:
I firmly believe that when the fear of pregnancy is eliminated from the lives of women, heaven will be millions of miles nearer this earth. I believe that much of the social, economic and crime chaos that exists in the world today extends directly back to the reckless breeding of our forebears.9
"I never had greater confidence in the work than now,” Sanger wrote to a friend in 1921. “It is absolutely the only issue which is alive which is fundamental and which can save civilization from the wreck which charities and other weak and sentimental agencies have made of society."10 Charities, you see, helped sustain the lives of the weak and “unfit.” Birth control, Sanger believed, would eliminate them entirely. “The way to get rid of labor problems, unemployment, low wages, the surplus, unwanted population,” Sanger insisted, “is to stop breeding.”11 What was “the great crime of imperialistic Germany?” According to Sanger, it was “its high birth rate.”12 War could be eliminated altogether if women would simply starve it to death, by “refus(ing) longer to produce the human food upon which the monster feeds.”13 When women are given unfettered access to contraceptive knowledge, Sanger assured us, “child slavery, prostitution, feeblemindedness, physical deterioration, hunger, oppression and war will disappear from the earth.”14 Margaret Sanger even went so far as to pin the death of Jesus upon a lack of birth control. Consider:
When the womb becomes fruitful (exclusively) through the desire of an aspiring love, another Newton will come forth to unlock further the secrets of the earth and the stars. There will come a Plato who will be understood, a Socrates who will drink no hemlock, and a Jesus who will not die upon the cross.15
Did you catch that? If women are free to bear children only when they want to, another Jesus will come forth, but this time he won’t have to die. “When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race.”16 In addition to wiping away suffering and vice, Sanger was convinced that birth control would create a higher race of beings and usher in a new enlightenment. She wrote a whole book about it. Once women are freed from the “bonds of submission and unwanted progeny,” Sanger told us, “the fountain of the race will have been cleansed. Mothers will bring forth, in purity and in joy, a race that is morally and spiritually free.”17 Birth control, for Sanger, was an evolutionary tool for advancing the species, and she bristled at the philanthropic efforts which held that progress back:
The effort toward racial progress that is being made today by the medical profession, by social workers, by the various charitable and philanthropic organizations and by state institutions for the physically and mentally unfit, is practically wasted. All these forces are in a very emphatic sense marking time. They will continue to mark time until the medical profession recognizes the fact that the ever increasing tide of the unfit is overwhelming all that these agencies are doing for society.18
The object of civilization is to obtain the highest and most splendid culture of which humanity is capable. But such attainment is unthinkable if we continue to breed from the present race stock that yields us our largest amount of progeny. Some method must be devised to eliminate the degenerate and the defective; for these act constantly to impede progress and ever increasingly drag down the human race.19
Fortunately, however, Birth Control offers an avenue of escape. It is reasonable to assume that women of subnormal mentality, however lacking they may be in vision and altruism, would prefer to avoid the pain and responsibilities of procreation, if the satisfaction of sex could be divorced from reproduction. Given Birth Control, the unfit will voluntarily eliminate their kind.20
It has now been more than 100 years since Margaret Sanger began proselytizing on behalf of birth control. Notice that none of the problems birth control was supposed to remedy have been eliminated. By virtually all indications, they are dramatically worse. And yet, birth control advocates continue to sing the same chorus. Birth control will eliminate abortion. Birth control will yield healthier, wealthier, and happier families. Birth control will prevent suffering, poverty, and crime. Do we just need to give it more time, perhaps? Margaret Sanger certainly didn’t think so. "Within two years,” Sanger said, “every man and woman in this country will know how many children they can afford to have. And, when they know that, I predict that two generations of birth control will wipe out all the slums, eliminate the birth of mental defects, minimize the number of humans in our insane asylums and automatically put a stop to child labor and prostitution."21 Two generations is all the time birth control would need. Sanger wrote that in 1916. As time went on, and it became clear that the “unfit” wouldn’t voluntarily eliminate themselves, Sanger would amend her earlier claim, adding forced sterilization to the mix. "Proper birth control, going hand-in-hand with sterilization for the mental defectives, the morons and those with transmissible disease could, within one generation, correct [the high birth rate among the dysgenic].”22
History has not been kind to the dogmatic claims of Margaret Sanger. Nor should it be. Her eugenic worldview has been entirely discredited. So has her nonsensical assertion that promiscuity is a natural deterrent to pregnancy,23 and her insistence that prolonged breastfeeding produces “brain disease, deafness and blindness.”24 Sanger was even wrong about the supposed demise of Planned Parenthood. “If I told or wrote to you that the name Planned Parenthood would be the end of the movement,” she wrote in 1956, “it was and has proven true.”25 Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood survived Sanger’s premature obituary. But despite her rather abysmal track record, Sanger’s position on birth control is still regarded as gospel truth.
It turns out Margaret Sanger was wrong about birth control. The Shangri La she promised us has not materialized, despite the near-universal cultural embrace of her program. The concern of her critics, has been borne out. By Sanger’s own admission, the “average physician” in 1920 “felt that contraceptive methods [were] not yet established as certainties and has, for that reason, refused to direct their use.”26 Esther Katz, founder and director of the Margaret Sanger Pages Project and editor of the The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger expressed the problem this way:
The conservative medical establishment continued to shun Sanger's birth control movement as radical and immoral, while new and unregulated contraceptive manufacturers sprang up like mushrooms. . . Not only did the ready availability of contraceptives contradict Sanger's argument that women lacked access to birth control, the burgeoning business in contraceptives also increased fears that America's youth would be swept down the path of promiscuity.27
Birth control opponents feared that it would lead to a cultural increase in immorality and infidelity. That is precisely what has happened, and though we can’t place all the blame on birth control, it has certainly played a significant role. The fear of the “average physician” in 1920 has just as much merit today as it did 100 years ago—though most physicians have long given up questioning the practical efficacy of birth control. In truth, birth control has never been a certain deterrent to pregnancy. Even today, it fails 12% of the time in practice. That would still be a net gain if birth control had no influence on behavior, but birth control does have an influence on behavior. The risk of pregnancy has always been a very real deterrent to sex. By significantly reducing the risk of pregnancy, birth control has vastly increased the pool of people who are willing to take that chance—particularly among the unmarried. It was on this front that Margaret Sanger’s thinking proved to be the most flawed.
In 1920, Sanger would write that the knowledge of birth control “should be available to every married man and woman.”28 Notice the caveat: “married” men and women. In 1958, when Planned Parenthood began providing birth control to unmarried women, Sanger immediately dispatched the following missive to its national director, William Vogt:
Nothing—actually nothing—done by the clinics could have been more devastating to our work than having it even intimated that the clinics were giving information and supplies to unmarried women! Who in your organization initiated such an idea at this time in the world’s history, when population control and birth rate control are being supported by demographers shouting from the housetops? Whoever expresses this idea of a “policy” is truly a saboteur of the first order! At every hearing in Washington, Senatorial and Congressional, we heard time after time the accusation from the Catholics that our clinics were advising young unmarried women and “high school girls” in the technique of contraception!” Proudly we could reply to that sordid remark and call it a lie!!—with a capital “L”! We had our facts and figures and records which supported our principles by which we won our friends, and I say to you, Bill, that the Birth Control Movement is alive and strong today because we adhered to that policy! I consider it a matter of personal embarrassment to me to have such an unwise “policy” announced from an organization which uses my name on your letterhead as Honorary President. I strongly urge you to reconsider this “policy” at the earliest possible time—without any more publicity!29
Needless to say, Planned Parenthood did not heed the counsel of its founder and focused more and more attention on providing birth control to unmarried women. Today, that’s almost all they do. Is it any wonder that close to 90% of American abortions are performed on unmarried women, or that the majority of them were using birth control the month they got pregnant? As the critics of birth control feared, it wasn’t able to hold the line. And now Planned Parenthood is there to sell their clients an abortion every time their "contraception" fails.
When birth control went from being a means for married couples to regulate the spacing of their children to a means for unmarried women to avoid getting pregnant, the equation fundamentally changed. Marriage is equipped to handle birth control failure. Singleness is not, and therein lies the problem. Birth control jumped the divide, and struck a massive blow to marriage along the way. At best, birth control is a palliative. At worst, it is a poison—but even if you disagree with this assessment, there is simply no denying the fact that birth control has failed to deliver the world Margaret Sanger promised us. In other words, it’s time to start reevaluating the promises of birth control, against the actual ledger of history.
- Margaret Sanger, 1928 letter to Edith How-Martyn, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 465.
- Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 1666.
- Margaret Sanger, Diary Entry (December 17, 1914)The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 465.
- Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 442.
- Margaret Sanger, 1957 letter to Anne Kennedy, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 414.
- Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 984.
- Havelock Ellis, Foreword:Woman and the New Race, by Margaret Sanger. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 22.
- Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 78.
- Margaret Sanger, “American Woman’s Association Award Speech,” (1932) The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 2, Ed. Esther Katz (2006), 172.
- Margaret Sanger, 1921 letter to Juliet Rublee, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 307.
- Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 1112.
- Ibid, Location 1189.
- Ibid, Location 1252.
- Ibid, Location 1746.
- Ibid, Location 1750.
- Ibid, Location 1735.
- Ibid, Location 1388.
- Ibid, Location 1551.
- Margaret Sanger, “A Better Race Through Birth Control” The Thinker, November 1923.
- Margaret Sanger, 1916 Newspaper Interview: “Police Can’t Stop Me,” The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 200.
- Margaret Sanger, 1934 letter to Yale student reporter, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 2, Ed. Esther Katz (2006), 278.
- Margaret Sanger, “The Prevention of Conception,” (1914) The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1, Ed. Esther Katz (2003, 2007), 200.
- Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 1024.
- Margaret Sanger, 1956 letter to Kenneth Rose, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 402.
- Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 1509.
- Margaret Sanger, 1934 letter to Yale student reporter, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 2, Ed. Esther Katz (2006), 278.
- Esther Katz, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 2, Ed. Esther Katz (2006), 115.
- Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. (Kindle Edition, 1920), Location 1012.
- Margaret Sanger, 1956 letter to Kenneth Rose, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3, Ed. Esther Katz (2010), 443.
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